Just 20 years ago, Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” was an outlying left-wing text hyped by a couple of underage screenwriters in a memorable scene from the 1997 movie “Good Will Hunting.”
“You want to read a real history book, read Howard Zinn’s ‘People’s History of the United States,’ ” Matt Damon says to Robin Williams, “That book will knock you on your ass.”
Now Zinn’s book is ubiquitous in late high school and early college curriculums. “Once considered radical, ‘A People’s History,’ has gone mainstream,” Stanford professor Sam Wineburg recently wrote in Slate. The book is an evergreen for HarperCollins publishers. “Year over year, it sells incredibly well,” said Amy Baker, associate publisher of Harper Perennial. “Every time there’s a controversy with the book, people rally behind it.”
Sales shot through the roof when it was revealed that Indiana governor Mitch Daniels — now the president of Purdue University — wanted to ban Zinn’s “truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation” from his state’s classrooms.
Historians, almost unanimously, hate the book. Wineburg speaks for many when he attacks Zinn’s penchant for Us vs. Them simplification: “A history of unalloyed certainties is dangerous because it invites a slide into intellectual torpor.” Harvard’s Jill Lepore, who has called Zinn’s history “upside down” (which he would probably take as a compliment) pointedly noted in a recent interview that Zinn, who died in 2010, was a political scientist, not a historian.
I bought the “People’s History” a few years ago and assumed I would hate it. I didn’t. In so many words, Zinn does ask: Whose side are you on? More often than not, I was on Zinn’s side.
Case in point: Most accounts of the 1898 American invasion of Cuba flow from Theodore Roosevelt’s stirring 1899 auto-hagiography, “The Rough Riders.” This short, elegantly written book is just a propaganda pamphlet paving the way for America’s imperialist land grab (see: Philippines; Guam; Puerto Rico) and Roosevelt’s subsequent presidential triumph.
“When learning about the Spanish-American War,” Wineburg writes, “[Zinn’s readers] don’t read about Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill. Instead, they follow the plight of foot soldiers sweltering in the Cuban tropics, clutching their stomachs, not from Spanish bullets but from food poisoning caused by rancid meat sold to the army by Armour & Company.”
I’m OK with that.
Another example: Zinn has it in for the 19th century’s Donald Trump — president Andrew Jackson, “land speculator, merchant, slave trader, and the most aggressive enemy of Indians in early American history.” The Indian Removal Act, Zinn reminds us, was “the leading measure” of Jackson’s administration.
Bully for him, as Teddy Roosevelt would say. Let’s see Jackson for the hard man he was, not the shot-through-gauze Pulitzer-winning piffle served up by Jon Meacham’s laughable 2008 bestseller, “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in White House.” Excerpt: “The next morning, the president was up early, and the children raced to his room to open their stockings.”
Awwwww. That’s sweet! How sad that hundreds of Cherokee children won’t be opening stockings thanks to sweet ole Grandpa Andrew.
God bless him, Zinn was consistent. In the final edition of the “History,” he brushed back Bill Clinton (“He was obviously trying to show that he was a tough guy”). Likewise he was singularly unbewitched by the militarism of Barack Obama, e.g., “Obama has continued the same way of thinking as in the Bush Administration about terrorism.”
Correction: An earlier version of this column reported that Theodore Roosevelt was elected president in 1900. He was elected vice president and became president the following year.
Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.