Popularity – A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

Daniel J. Flynn

Executive director of Accuracy in Academia and author of the newly released, :Why the Left Hates America: Exposing the Lies That Have Obscured Our Nation’s Greatness.”

The New York Times’s reviewer (no doubt a cousin of Jayson Blair) declared that the book should be “required reading” for students. Professors have heeded this counsel. Courses at the University of Colorado-Boulder, UMass-Amherst, Penn State, and Indiana University are among dozens of classes nationwide that require the book. The book is so popular that it can be found on the class syllabus in such fields as economics, political science, literature, and women’s studies, in addition to its more understandable inclusion in history.

Amazon.com reports in the site’s “popular in” section that the book is currently #7 at Emory University, #4 at the University of New Mexico, #9 at Brown University, and #7 at the University of Washington. In fact, 16 of the 40 locations listed in A People’s History’s “popular in” section are academic institutions, with the remainder of the list dominated by college towns like Binghamton (NY), State College (PA), East Lansing (MI), and Athens (GA). Based on this, it is reasonable to wonder if most of the million or so copies sold have been done so via coercion, i.e., college professors and high school teachers requiring the book. The book is deemed to be so crucial to the development of young minds by some academics that a course at Evergreen State decreed:

This is an advanced class and all students should have read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States before the first day of class, to give us a common background to begin the class.

Sam Wineburg

Margaret Jacks Professor of Education and a professor of history at Stanford University, and the director of the Stanford History Education Group. He is the author of dozens of scholarly articles and the award-winning book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.

Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States has few peers among contemporary historical works. With more than 2 million copies in print, A People’s History is more than a book. It is a cultural icon. “You wanna read a real history book?” Matt Damon asks his therapist in the 1997 movie Good Will Hunting. “Read Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. That book’ll… knock you on your ass.”

The book’s original gray cover was painted red, white, and blue for its Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition in 2003, and it is now marketed with special displays in suburban megastores. A week after Zinn’s death in 2010, A People’s History was number 7 on Amazon’s bestseller list – not too shabby for a book first published in 1980.

Once considered radical, A People’s History has gone mainstream. By 2002, Will Hunting had been replaced by A.J. Saprano, of the HBO hit The Sapranos. Doing his homework at the kitchen counter, A.J. tells his parents that his history teacher compared Christopher Columbus to Slobodan Milosevic. When Tony fumes “Your teacher said that?” A.J. responds, “It’s not just my teacher – it’s the truth. It’s in my history book.” The camera pans to A.J. holding a copy of A People’s History.

 In the 32 years since its original publication, A People’s History has gone from a book that buzzed about the ear of the dominant narrative to its current status where, in many circles, it has become the dominant narrative. The book appears on university reading lists in economics, political science, anthropology, cultural studies, women’s studies, ethnic studies, Chicano studies, and African American studies, in addition to history. A People’s History remains a perennial  favorite in courses for future teachers, and in some, it is the only history book on the syllabus.

In 2008, the National Council for the Social Studies invited Zinn to address its annual conference – the largest gathering of social studies teachers in the country. Zinn’s speech met with raucous applause, after which copies of A People’s History were given out to attendees courtesy of Harper Collins. Writing in the organization’s newsletter, its president Syd Golston hailed Zinn as “an inspiration to many of us.” Back in 1980, who could have predicted that a book that cast the Founding Fathers as a shadowy cabal who foisted on the American people “the most effective system of national control devised in modern times” would one day be featured on the National History Education Clearinghouse’s website, an initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Education?

David Green

Professor of journalism and media studies and of history at Rutgers and the author of Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image (Norton), among other books.

[Matt] Damon later turned the book into a History Channel series, and in time it also launched a raft of spin-offs. By Zinn’s final years—he died in 2010—the franchise was earning him some $200,000 annually.

Chris Beneke and Randall Stephens

Chris Beneke is an associate professor of history and sports history at Bentley University and the author of Beyond Toleration: The Religious Origins of American Pluralism. Randall Stephens is the author (with Karl Giberson) of The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.

What exactly is it about Barton’s and Zinn’s versions of history that inspire such uncompromising, take-no-prisoners fervor? And how do they manage to wield so much influence, given the widespread skepticism about their accuracy?

Partisanship is the first answer that comes to mind. Barton and Zinn have served as eloquent and vocal supporters of right- and left-wing causes respectively, and both have reworked the past for transparently political purposes. Each has offered conclusions that resonate with his audiences’ beliefs. Whatever the validity of their claims, in other words, many readers apparently think they should be true. (It’s also likely that partisanship accounts for some proportion of votes against Barton and Zinn’s credibility.)

But that’s only part of the explanation. There’s a more insidious mechanism that helps explain both the passionate support these authors inspire and the well-founded suspicion that they are fudging the record. In short, Barton and Zinn have each crafted a sort of Da Vinci Code history. Nearly everyone knows the basic plotline of that bestselling Dan Brown novel, which leads readers via a highly dubious series of clues to the previously undisclosed origin of Christianity while unraveling the malicious web of deception that concealed it for centuries.

Adapting this gripping storytelling approach, Barton and Zinn offer audiences the illusion that they have been hoodwinked by undisclosed authorities — Ivy League academics, textbook authors, the New York Times, eighth-grade social studies teachers, parents. They give readers the intellectual self-assurance that accompanies expertise without the slog of unglamorous study required to attain it.

The message is that you, dear reader, know something that the vast majority of unenlightened chumps do not. For devotees of Barton and Zinn, it’s as though a switch has been flicked and everything in a darkened room illuminated. (Barton compares his labors to those of a soldier who discovers an IED and then alerts others.)

Now, Barton and Zinn aren’t conspiracy theorists exactly, but they press the same psychological buttons. Barton’s hyper-patriotic Christian founding narrative and Zinn’s unmasking of elite white male criminality offer the dual satisfaction of solving a mystery and showing up a teacher. This double-win is so sweet that readers might not wish to entertain any non-complying facts, and so easy that wrestling with more complicated accounts will seem pure drudgery. Read Barton and you see vividly how pointy-headed secularists stole our Christian heritage from us. Read Zinn and you understand how capitalism has robbed us of justice itself. Scales fall from your eyes.

 

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