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Historian Howard Zinn’s work has become a pop culture touchstone for fans and critics alike. Some credit his book “A People’s History of the United States” with changing the way students and scholars study history. Others accuse him of imposing his own agenda on the past. We talk with historian Martin Duberman about his new biography of Zinn, which paints an intimate portrait of a complex and private man.
- Martin Duberman Author; Distinguished Professor of History at Lehman College and the Graduate School of the City University of New York
MR. MARC FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher of the Washington Post sitting in on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States," was published to a modest success in 1980, but since then it has made cameo appearances in the popular culture, including mentions in the film, "Good Will Hunting," and on HBO's "The Sopranos." That, along with support from school teachers who share its leftist perspective on American history, has helped make the book a rarity, a text that sells more copies each year than it did the last.
MR. MARC FISHERBut while Zinn's work continues to sell two years after his death, he remains a controversial historian, accused of wearing ideological blinders and allowing too many inaccuracies in his text. Howard Zinn is nearly revered in some corners of the left, vilified on the right and dismissed by some of his profession's most respected figures. And joining me to talk about his new biography, "Howard Zinn, a Life on the Left," is Martin Duberman. He is Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus at City University of New York and founder of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies.
MR. MARC FISHERHe's the author of more than 20 books and so, Martin Duberman, why did you decide to write about your fellow historian Howard Zinn?
MR. MARTIN DUBERMANI think one reason was that I knew Howard. We weren't close friends but we would see each other at conventions and so forth and always, you know, stop and chat. And I knew him from way back because one of my first books was called "The Antislavery Vanguard." It was a collection of new essays by historians in an attempt to reevaluate the abolitionists movement. And Howard -- this was way back in like the mid '60s -- Howard was one of the first people I asked to do a new essay. And I ended up liking it so much that I put it as the concluding essay in the volume.
FISHERAnd if you'd like to join our conversation about Howard Zinn you can call us at 1-800-433-8850 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Are you a Howard Zinn fan? Tell us why. If you have questions about Howard Zinn's life, give us a call. Should history be completely objective? Is that even possible? Let's talk about that with Martin Duberman.
FISHERThe rap on the "People's History" by Howard Zinn is that it is history from a very clear ideological perspective and that -- and certainly he would have no objection to that statement. But one of the criticisms that's been made over the years is that he gave extra and perhaps undo weight to some aspects of American history to fit his narrative. Is that a fair criticism?
DUBERMANNo, it's not a fair criticism. I have some of my own problems with the "People's History" and I detail them in the biography I've written of Howard. But there's some large questions involved here. For example, can history ever be objective. And there are at least two good reasons why it can approximate that goal but never finally achieve it. The first reason is that the evidence that comes down to us from the past is always fragmentary evidence. It tends to be privileged elitist groups who leave some trace of their lives for future generations to examine. Most people throughout time have been illiterate and so we know almost nothing about their lives.
DUBERMANThe other factor is the historian himself or herself interacting with this fragmentary data, every historian brings with them a set of personal experiences and values that inevitably affect the evidence that they're dealing with. Unfortunately it's often on an unconscious level. They don't acknowledge it, they don't admit to it. And many historians feel that what they are doing is in fact objective history. Howard was at least honest enough to say up front in "A People's History," I am giving you my interpretation of the history of the United States.
DUBERMANHaving said that, readers can than evaluate for themselves much more easily which part is based on evidence and which part is based on the author's own value system.
FISHERAnd so since he does say straight out from the top that he is writing from this perspective, and obviously his life of political activism very well defines that political philosophy that he has, there's no -- the wool is not being pulled over anyone's head in this book. On the other hand, you say in the biography that there are some places where he may have overdone it, where he perhaps overemphasized union strikes that maybe weren't as significant as he made them out to be, that kind of thing.
DUBERMANYes. But again, this is a parcel of what it means to be an historian. And it's also the reason why history is constantly being rewritten. Because no single historian can ever get it all right in quotes. There is no such thing for the reasons I just gave. Howard does overemphasize or underemphasize this or that aspect of the American past but so does every other historian who has ever written. So I don't see that Howard stands apart.
FISHERIs it -- does he stand apart in the way in which he combined his scholarship with his political activism throughout his life? He was very prominent in the civil rights movement, he's outspoken in his support of students. He worked with a student on violent coordinating committee in the 1960's. He was an early critic of the U.S. war in Vietnam and wrote a book calling for an immediate withdrawal from Vietnam. Is that kind of activism common among historians, and is it something that you think enhances his work or lives wholly apart from it?
DUBERMANThose historians -- and I mean the large majority who never involve themselves in politics are nonetheless, though they would not admit it, being political because silence, after all, is political. If you say nothing in the face of injustice you are allowing injustice to continue. Therefore you are engaged in a political act. Howard was at least conscious of where his sympathies lay. He made no bones about it, nor did he pretend to be writing about absolutely everything that ever took place in American history.
DUBERMANHe was writing primarily about what had been omitted from our standard textbooks. And he says that, again right up front, it's interesting that the year before "A People's History" came out -- it came out in 1980 -- there was an important research study done of American high school textbooks, a study that has never been challenged. And what that study showed was that the ordinary average textbook is essentially a story of American triumphalism. It does not deal at all with the lives of ordinary people, with their suffering, with their hard labor, with their attempts to get ahead and contrary to American myth they're usual failure, no matter how much hard work they invest in getting ahead. So, yes.
FISHERAnd so I was just going to say, and Howard Zinn was a signal figure in that movement in American historiography from writing form the top down to that kind of bottom up approach of social history and writing about ordinary people. But that has now become more or less the rule at many -- at the high school and college level. Do you think the pendulum has gone so far down to the other side that, as I've seen with, you know, my own kids in high school and college, where they seem to get only that kind of history. And the sort of old fashioned narrative of people in power almost doesn't exist.
DUBERMANI don't think that's accurate frankly. I think there's plenty of American triumphalism around still in the textbook. And I think textbooks are often still devoted to the exploits of the top elite group, presidents, generals, industrialists, businessmen, etcetera. I think what has been added is something that was long needed. What about our country's failures? What about all those people, meaning the vast majority, who never did "get ahead" in life. Why not? What factors were involved?
DUBERMANSo I think, if anything, Howard has held to readjust the balance. He hasn't done away with the story of American triumphs.
FISHERWe're talking to Martin Duberman. He's the author of "Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left" and let's hear from Mark in Fairfax, Va. Mark, you're on the air.
MARKWell, thank you very much. Howard Zinn happens to be, you know, one of my -- that book has to be one of my very favorites so it's really nice to have a conversation on it. And then unfortunately sitting here and listening to the biographer he kinda took several of the key points that I wanted to make that Howard made no bones about it up front in his prologue, that he was a leftist and that he was trying to strike a balance in history. But maybe what I still think sets Howard's narrative apart is that he chose to do an entire narrative.
MARKHe didn't focus on an aspect of American history. He may have focused on the aspect of say the left or the underprivileged or say everyone but the elites, but he chose to lay out a narrative of America's development and role in the world, it's effect on its people in a way that had not really been done before. And I think that that narrative -- and agree it has -- seeps down into the high school classrooms -- I'm a high school band director -- but that he has been very influential.
MARKBut that was a first and he made no -- and again I find that the criticisms of and about that, well we're not sure if he emphasized this too much or that, well again, he said that in his prologue and he was trying to strike a balance with that writing as it was anyway.
FISHERMartin Duberman, was there -- did Howard Zinn have in mind from the start this sort of rewriting of the history that American high school students would receive was his objective that grand?
DUBERMANI think it was. I think Howard was well aware of his own intentions. He knew for example -- because the book starts with Christopher Columbus -- and he knew for example that the mythology about Columbus, you know, this brave noble figure was not based on historical evidence. Yes, there was some bravery involved and so forth but Columbus was a ruthless man who massacred probably hundreds of thousands. And a lot of people didn't like hearing that, especially a lot of Italian Americans because we still, after all, do have a Columbus Day parade. In fact it happened yesterday. I'm not aware that there was any controversy about it but the evidence is in Howard's book to produce controversy.
FISHERAnd did his life -- I mean, he came from a modest background. He talked about -- you write about how he felt he'd been born with class consciousness. As you examined his early life did you find clues that would lead to why he felt, first of all, the courage to break with the existing narrative of American history but also the willingness to embrace and even emphasize the failures in American history that were perhaps not being told in the history books of that time.
DUBERMANI think these matters always remain somewhat mysterious. Howard's three brothers, for example, never became readers or scholars or political activists. Why in that family of poor Jewish immigrants Howard emerged as someone devoted to studying the past, and especially attuned to the sufferings of ordinary people, I don't think can be answered.
FISHERAnd it may be particularly difficult to answer because, as you were saying earlier, one of the things that historians of his ilk try to do is to bring out the untold stories of ordinary people, people who are not in power. And yet Howard Zinn himself went to considerable lengths to not make available to people like you who might be looking into his biography -- to not make available to them any of the records of his own past. In fact he set out to destroy them before he died two years ago. What was that about?
DUBERMANWell, we don't know. When the family opened up all of Howard's archives to me -- and at that time they were totally unprocessed -- I did expect a goldmine not only in terms of his political life but also in terms of his inner life, his life as a human being. And in the biographies I've written in the past I've always aimed at a rounded portrait dealing not only with public behavior but also with personal relationships.
DUBERMANAnd I was quite startled to find an absence of that sort of evidence in the archives. In Howard's case in thinking about all this what I've come up with are two reasons, neither of them entirely satisfy me. But I think in part in vetting his archives Howard was trying to protect people with whom he had been politically engaged over the years. He was fearful that some day we might return to the McCarthy Period -- and of course to some extend we're always there. And some of the correspondence may well have contained intimate detail about activities which could've gotten his correspondence in considerable trouble with the government.
DUBERMANSo some of it I think relates to that. The rest of it relates -- you know, in talking to his two children who are now of course adults, and many of his intimate friends, there's no question that Howard was himself a very private person. He didn't care much about reputation. I mean, his aim in life was not to make himself "an important person." But he did feel that his private life, his relationship with his wife, what he was like as a parent, what his friendships were like and so forth, he felt all of that was -- should really remain within the private realm.
DUBERMANSo I think that was in fact the second reason why he ended up vetting his archives. But because I was able to talk to so many of his friends and also to do additional archival research in other people's papers, I've been able to at least give some sense of what this human being was like and what his relationships were like.
FISHERWe're talking to Martin Duberman. He's the author of "Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left." And you can join our conversation at 1-800-433-8850. Tell us about your own experience reading Howard Zinn's work and what you thought of it, questions about his life. Give us a call. Here's Albert in Vienna, Va. Albert, you're on the air.
ALBERTHi. Thank you so much for this show. Can you hear me okay?
FISHERYes, go ahead.
ALBERTOh great. So about ten minutes ago, Mr. Fisher, you had mentioned that your kids experienced a diversity of perspective in both their high school and university history course. And I was quite surprised -- happily surprised to hear that but I wonder as a 16-year veteran of a public high school history classroom and my wife's a public high school history teacher as well, it was never our experience as kids and our experiences with colleagues that that occurred.
ALBERTTo where it was Howard Zinn, I think, that popularized the idea of historiography in the United States, the concept that history is not a study of the past, which I think in the United States we're obsessed with kind of trivial memorization. And we have this conception that it's just a study of facts from the past. Howard Zinn introduced as facts that history is a study of perspective from the past.
ALBERTAnd I think in the UK and other countries they introduce that concept very well to children in the middle school age. Where here in the U.S. I don't think it happens unless kids like yours are lucky in the high school to have that experience. I'd be curious to hear what your guest has to say about that.
FISHERYeah, it's interesting because both of my kids actually rebelled against the Howard Zinn books having been assigned them in school. And both felt that what they wanted -- that they appreciated his perspective and were eager to read both his perspective and opposing perspectives. But that they first wanted sort of one clean shot at the facts, which they felt they weren't getting from his book. Martin Duberman?
DUBERMANWell, the facts, here we go again. I mean, we're back at that old chestnut, what is a fact? And how many facts do you have to amass before you get to something called the truth with a capital T. There is no such thing as a history book which contains only facts or mostly facts. History books always reflect the experiences of the person who's writing the book.
DUBERMANAnd they also reflect, as I said earlier, the limited amount of evidence that has come down to us. Howard was honest and honorable man and he always said that the historian must continue to aim at telling the truth to the extent that that is possible. He must never, he or she, must never distort the evidence consciously and they needed to remain aware consciously of what they were doing in order to prevent that distortion.
DUBERMANAnd Howard did never, did not ever, you know, deliberately distort evidence in order to make a particular left wing point. That doesn't mean he did not distort the evidence. As I said in the book, I take into task of a number of times. I think his portrait of Abraham Lincoln, for example, is not fair to Lincoln. I mean, Howard portrays him as someone who used the issue of slavery in order to, for various political effects.
DUBERMANBut that emancipation itself was not of particular interest to him. I think that is a distortion of Lincoln's view and I think Eric Foner's recent book, "A Fiery Trial," strikes the popular balance between Lincoln's anti-slavery feeling and the fact that he was a cautious man who wanted, if possible, to hold the Union together.
FISHERAnd a political pragmatist...
DUBERMANYes, very much.
FISHERWe'll continue our conservation with Martin Duberman about Howard Zinn after a break. I'm Marc Fisher and you're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
FISHERWelcome back. I'm March Fisher of "The Washington Post" sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi and we are talking about the American historian, Howard Zinn, with the author of a new biography of Zinn, Martin Duberman, a distinguished professor of history emeritus at City University of New York. And, Howard Zinn before, long before he wrote the, his most famous book "The People's History of the United States," he was involved in demonstrations, the civil rights movement.
FISHERAnd even before that he enlisted to serve in World War II and was then recruited some years later, the FBI attempted to recruit him as a source. Can you talk about those two experiences, in the war and with the FBI and the roles that they played in forming his political outlook and view of this country?
DUBERMANYou've hit on one of those ports of Howard's life about which the least is known. In fact, practically nothing, namely his experiences of Bombardier in World War II. Howard volunteered for service even though preceding his enlistment he had shown a streak of radicalism as a late teenager. He'd been part of a demonstration in Times Square in fact and which had been knocked on the head by a policeman's billy club and woke up hours later in the doorway with everybody gone.
DUBERMANBut there's this strange gap in the archives, in other people's accounts, of how Howard, during the war, reacted to the war. His very last bombing mission was on a French town called Rouen and all that they would, everybody knew that it was only a matter of days before surrender was near and they were told that they would be dropping a different kind of bomb this time.
DUBERMANThere was several thousand German troops, garrisons, on the outskirts of Rouen and it turned out that what they dropped was napalm, destroying not only almost all the troops but a good part of the town itself. But when you're flying high in a plane you don't see the destruction that's taking place on the ground below you. You get no sense of the horror which the bombs that you're dropping are producing on the ground.
DUBERMANBut later after the war, Howard was so guilt stricken at what had happened at Rouen that he went back to the town and actually explored its archives and he also wrote quite a bit about the horrors of World War II, which he did not write about while the war was on and while he was himself serving. But later on he said, you know, I'm against war and violence of all kinds and that even includes the so-called good war, World War II.
DUBERMANAfter 40 million lives were lost in that conflict nobody doubts that, I don't think, that something had to be done about Hitler, Mussolini and the spread of fascism throughout the world. And so therefore, Howard never fully became a committed pacifist. He never became, for example, a member of the war resister's league, which others who were against taking human life ever, belonged to.
DUBERMANHoward, being Jewish, could not get himself to denounce the uprising in the war. So a ghetto, for example, when the Jewish victims of Nazism attempted to gain their freedom through violence. Of course, he felt anyone is entitled to self defense if they're lives are being directly threatened.
FISHERHe did, he did later join some groups though that drew the interest of the FBI, which, who agents asked him if, you know, the question of the 1950s, whether he was or had ever been a communist and his answer to that was no and the FBI went ahead and attempted to recruit him. What did they want from him?
DUBERMANWell, I think they did that fairly often. They were, you know, hoping to turn him on the assumption that indeed he was a member of the party and could, therefore, give them names of other members and other actions that the party was involved in. But Howard was not an ideologue. He was neither a member of the party nor was he sympathetic to communism with a capital C.
DUBERMANHe wrote frequently against the policies of the Soviet Union, for example. He did find in the writings of Karl Marx a great deal of value as almost anyone who bothers to read Marx would. But he never became a devoted Marxist. In fact, that the latter part of his life I would call, others may disagree, but I would say that Howard leaned more toward philosophical anarchism, that he was more anti-authoritarian and especially against the authority of the state and the church.
DUBERMANThen he was pro-socialist. I mean, I think Howard could be called a socialist if we talk about, not a communist, never. But a socialist if we talk about it in terms of ends rather than means. In other words, put very simply, Howard wanted to see less suffering in the world. He wanted more people to have more of a chance at a good life.
DUBERMANAs for the means for how you get to that end, Howard was never a committed socialist. He never believed, for example, that there should be public ownership of the means of production and distribution.
FISHERHoward Zinn did begin his teaching career at Spelman, the historically black women's college where he was in the late 1950s and on the line is Sharon and only, who actually had Professor Zinn, at Spelman, is that right? Sharon? Are you there? We may have lost her?
DUBERMANThat's too bad.
FISHERThat is too bad, but we'll try to come back to her. Here's Eric, in Annapolis. Eric, you're on the air. And we're not…
ERICCan you hear me?
FISHERYes, we are. Eric, go ahead.
ERICExcellent. That's a great show and I just wanted to say that I'm a huge fan of Howard Zinn and I think his book had a huge impact on my life. It hits with, you know, "People's History of the United States." And I find it very inspirational and as I was telling the screener I kind of put him in that same category as, like, Martin Luther King and Frederick Douglass and, you know, he was a freedom fighter, both with the pen and also with his voice.
ERICAnd I just, as I was also telling the screener I think one of the turning points in his life may have been that incident in World War II after he went and saw the lives that had been lost through, you know, that bombing campaign or whatever.
ERICAnd so basically I think would I was here to say, you know, I'm a huge fan, he totally helped me learn about the truth of American history, which is very dark and sadly, you know, up until then, you know, it seems like the public school system doesn't really give you the whole truth. They just kind of...
FISHEROkay. Let's get Martin Duberman's response. Did Howard Zinn have a dark view of this country?
DUBERMANWell, if we talk about an area that we haven't so far, I think one could say his view was quite dark and that is American foreign policy, at least from the end of the 19th century down to the present day. Howard emphasized the many times in which our governments, democratic and republican, had intervened in the internal affairs of other countries and often it had intervened with the cost of many lives.
DUBERMANAnd in order to bolster dictatorships had come out, in other words, as Reagan did in Nicaragua, against the aspirations of ordinary people and in order to keep in power a dictatorship which the people of Nicaragua loathed.
FISHERLet's quickly go back to Sharon, who was a student of Professor Zinn. Sharon, are you there?
SHARONYes, I am. Can you hear me?
FISHERGo ahead. Yes, go ahead.
SHARONYes, I know he came from Spelman, but I had the pleasure of having him for a summer. He came up to Upsala College in East Orange, New Jersey and taught a course on the Civil War. I was a freshman and he was incredibly passionate and he had a profound influence on my life. My children have learned about him and as of last week my grandson who's in fifth grade, is reading "You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train," which is Howard's book. So he has followed me ever since I had that class with him. So I just wanted to share that personal note.
FISHERWell, thank you, appreciate that.
DUBERMANYes, that's wonderful. Actually you had him when he was still a very young man, if you were in his class at Upsala.
FISHERThat was 1963, right.
DUBERMANYes, because he was still getting his doctorate at Columbia at that time.
FISHERWell, terrific. If you want to hear more about the life and work of Howard Zinn, you can head to the Hyattsville Busboys and Poets this evening, where Timothy Patrick McCarthy, the editor of "The Indispensible Zinn: The Essential Writings of People's Historian," will be speaking at 6:00 o'clock in appropriately enough "The Zinn Room" of Busboys and Poets in Hyattsville. And, Martin Duberman, we just have a few seconds left. What do you think Howard Zinn's ultimate influence will be on the way that American history is told in just a couple of sentences?
DUBERMANTough to do but I'll make a stab. I think what Howard represents is that regardless of what profession any of us are members of, the fact is that all of us are citizens as well, and therefore we have a responsibility for the official policies that are issued in our names and for the acts that are taken in our names. And Howard never apologized for the fact that he was active in public affairs. He did not feel for one second that it compromised his integrity as a historian. (unintelligible) I feel that.
FISHERGreat. We'll have to leave it there. Thank you very much. Martin Duberman, he's the author of "Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left." And you can see WAMU recording a live version of Kojo in community at All Souls Unitarian Church in Columbia Heights at 6:00 o'clock tonight. I'm Marc Fisher sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. Thanks very much for listening.
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