The Joy of Zinn

History, it is often observed, is written by the winners. Losers die, are marginalized, are forgotten. History, then, is often a partial truth. It is the thief ignoring the cries of the dispossessed, and finding solace in various themes of necessity, such as Manifest Destiny, the White Man’s burden, God’s will, civilization -- pick your trope.

History, our story, is less the triumphal conquest of the inevitable, whatever that may be, than it is the result of raw struggle. We forget that at our peril, becoming blind, even numb, to the prospect for change in our time.

Howard Zinn challenged orthodoxy, most famously in the various editions of his polemical A People’s History of the United States. Now comes Martin Duberman’s excellent biography, Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left (The New Press, New York, 2012).

I found the biography on the shelves of a tiny bookshop in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where my wife and I are on vacation. I picked it up, and then put it back on the shelf straightaway. “I am on vacation,” I rationalized. “I need a rest.”

All night long the sole copy of the book loomed. What if someone else picked it up? Surely, a part of vacation is regrouping, finding new inspiration, for the struggles to come. We returned to the shop as it opened. The book was still there.

Duberman was no fawning friend of Zinn’s. He provides an account of his life from Zinn’s chaotic upbringing, to his lonely final year, morning the death of his wife. Duberman shows the radical blossom in response to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Zinn seemed to be everywhere at once. 

I particularly appreciated Duberman’s perspective on anarchism, and Zinn’s attraction to it later in life. Anarchism is not the bomb--thrower’s creed. It is a deep-seated distrust of authority, of accretions of power, of the ability of those on the inside -- however defined -- to oppress the outsiders. If Zinn had a passion, it was to speak for the outsider. He never met a wall he was unprepared to deconstruct, one brick at a time.

Yet for all that, Zinn was a creature of his times. He was late to embrace the struggle for gender equality, and he was strangely tone deaf to the cries of gay and lesbian Americans for equality before the law. This is no indictment of Zinn; it is simply a reminder that we are all shackled by the chains of what came before us. The task of the critical life is to shake free of those chains, or, at a minimum, to rattle them in defiance in the face of those who aspire to hold keys to the various locks imprisoning the soul.

“If we want peace, we will have to struggle for it. If we want justice, we will have to demand it. If we want democracy, we will have to build it,” he once told a crowd.

Duberman taught me that I have not read enough Zinn. He wrote far more than the work that made him famous. He was an essayist, even a playwright -- he wrote a play about Emma Goldman, wondering how it was he’d never even heard her name until after he had completed his Ph.D. in American history at Columbia.

“Did you know Howard?” the bookstore owner asked when I conveyed my relief that the book had not been sold. “You know he had a place in Welllleet.”

“No,” I said. This despite the fact that we summer in Wellfleet ourselves. Indeed, I write this review not far from Zinn’s former home here.

Zinn was a private sort of person. Shortly before he died, he culled his papers, removing things too personal for the prying eyes of archivists and biographers. Duberman had to resort to interviews of friends and colleagues for insight into Zinn. To a degree that makes the book unsatisfying, he was unable to learn much about the private Zinn. That’s a pity.

What makes a man a lifelong rebel? Why the decades long commitment to making sure the voiceless are heard? What fueled his sense of resistance, his cynicism about authority of all forms? 

It does not diminish Zinn, or Duberman, that these questions are not answered. But I read this book wondering about the sources of Zinn’s courage. In the end, Zinn remains a mystery. Perhaps that is at it should be. He would not want to be thought us as an example for others. His goal was simply to point at injustice, and then encourage us to fight for a better way of living together.

Duberman’s biography was worth the read. I will be looking for more Zinn, and more Duberman, in the weeks and months to come.


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