Some more thoughts on Zinn

Some more things that strike me about A People’s History of the United States:

First, it tries to be a one-stop shop, for the general reader. As I recall, from first seeing the book when I was a “general reader,” it does a good job of convincing readers that it’s exposing them to the untold stories of the underside of the American Dream. For many, I think being exposed to the idea that there was an underside was a shock. This may be the biggest contribution of the book.

As I look through the book now, I’m surprised how much attribution Zinn does, right in the narrative. I ignored it before, because I didn’t recognize the names of the historians Zinn is quoting and paraphrasing. Reading it again, I’m as interested in the historiography as in the history.

Zinn says he intends his book to be a companion (and corrective) to the standard American history that we all learn in high school. I think he does a pretty good job on two important fronts. He talks about things the “standard” histories pass by, and he challenges the authority of “standard” historians. This is important, because it’s impossible to put everything into a general history survey text (or course), and a lot has to be left by the wayside. But the general reader doesn’t usually have to think about what gets included, and whose voice is ignored or suppressed. It’s the implication Zinn draws that maybe some voices have been suppressed, and not merely ignored, that makes the book memorable and controversial.

I think I read
A People’s History before Matt Damon mentioned it in Good Will Hunting, but I imagine a lot of people first read it as a result of that endorsement. I always liked the mental image of a bunch of working class guys from Southey, talking about the Arawak Indians and how the Wobblies sang Joe Hill songs and scared the shit out of the powers that be. When I loaded trucks for a living (and was a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters), I always had fun talking with guys who had half a clue, but were trying to find out more. Critics of Zinn claim that he riles up the ignorant masses, leading people to believe in conspiracy theories and all kinds of bullshit. But really, who gave them the right to say who’s allowed to know more of the truth?

Zinn said throwing your anger and tears back into the past was a waste of time. His point was that there was a connection between then and now, and that by understanding what happened, we could make better choices in the present for the future. Or at least have a better appreciation for the complexity and moral ambiguity of real people. This seems to be the hope we all secretly share, when we get into history. That’s the “why should I care” test HCR keeps bringing us back to in class. There’s something resonant or instructive about anything we get excited enough about to write a book. At least, we hope so.

I’m a little off track, but I’ve been thinking about the subjects of the story I’m writing. I had a moment of panic last week, when I thought these folks weren’t representative enough, and that their story is too full of contingency. I’ve been reading a lot of histories that leave the individual people out, so they can talk about places, forces, and how “The People” respond. I was nervous that my story would seem trivial, if it was about less than the full sweep of rural history, across the entire country from the beginning until now. Seems kind of silly, when I put it that way. But there you have it. So,
A People’s History helped me this week, as an illustration that you can talk about regular people, and still tell a big story.