A People's History of the United States + Voices of a People's History

peoples.jpg peoplesvoices.jpg

A person must understand one thing going in: this is not "objective" history, if such a thing can be said to exist. Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States is written, and the companion volume Voices of a People's History is compiled, with a clear and openly acknowledged anarcho-socialist agenda, and if the titles (and the books' huge fame as touchstones of the radical left) weren't enough to clue you in, I definitely wouldn't recommend either volume to a person who wants their historical narrator to walk some kind of ideological "neutral" zone (nor, needless to say, to someone who expects a right-slanting bias). Zinn, as the title of his famous memoir You Can't Be Neutral On A Moving Train might suggest, makes no bones about his allegiances. In my opinion this can be a breath of fresh air, since every historian comes to the table with a set of biases, acknowledged or not, and getting them out in the open saves the reader time and energy. Not only that, but where should we locate this mythical neutral ground, anyway? Even the supposedly objective stance of one place or time comes to seem hopelessly biased when viewed from a different perspective. However I admit that, although I certainly don't agree with Zinn on everything, my political leanings are broadly in line with his, so take that for what it's worth.

A People's History deals with over five hundred years of American history in just over six hundred pages, meaning that it covers a LOT of ground. Not only that, but its avowed focus on the stories of the resisters, the everyday people who fought against their conquerors/oppressors, means that by definition the narrative is more multi-form, more fragmented than the standard history event line (discovery, exploration, colonization, expansion, etc.) Zinn's work is cut out for him to an even greater extent than if he were simply attempting to tell five hundred years of victors' stories. For me, this was the most difficult thing about reading the book cover-to-cover: there is simply so much there. I usually prefer micro-histories: books that cover enough of the bigger picture so that I can contextualize the particulars of the smaller story being told, but specific enough that I feel I'm getting to know individuals, glimpsing what it was like to live in a different time and place. That's simply not going to happen when the author must move along at such a brisk clip, devoting four pages AT MOST to each individual struggle prior to 1960, and ten pages at most to more recent developments. Most of the fascinating individuals Zinn touches on are present for a paragraph or a page only, providing a tantalizing glimpse before the narrative speeds on by. Having read entire books on a few of the subjects Zinn mentions, it was very clear to me how much complexity and interest is lost in super large-scale histories like this one. To choose just one example, in Elliot Gorn's biography of the labor organizer Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, one of the most fascinating things to me was Jones's seemingly anti-progressive attitude toward female suffrage and union recognition for women; Zinn's only comment about this is "Mother Jones did not seem particularly interested in the feminist movement." It's not Zinn's fault, of course: just the function of this type of macro history.

These challenges were one reason I decided to read Voices of a People's History in tandem with its parent volume: as a compilation of primary-source documents, it gives the reader a direct window into the experience of individual people taking part in the struggles Zinn describes, at a specific moment in time. I'm so glad I read both books together, as Voices reinforces the element I find most inspiring about A Peoples' History to begin with: that is, not so much the leftist (re)interpretation of events all Americans learned in high school anyway, but these books' function as a treasury of struggles and movements too regional, grass-roots, or politically radical to be included in traditional histories. These stories are often utterly fascinating: complex, personal/political struggles that illustrate the ways in which the landscape of American politics has shifted and buckled over the years, and a reminder that "America" does not equal whoever happens to be President/Governor/Secretary of Defense at a given time.

I learned, for example, about the Anti-Rent movement in the Hudson Valley, a rebellion of tenant farmers against their Dutch-descended landlords, and against a system that amounted more or less to medieval-style feudalism, touched off by the financial crisis of 1837. I was reminded of the Irish-descended secret society of the Molly Maguires, immortalized antagonistically by Arthur Conan Doyle in The Valley of Fear and semi-sympathetically by Peter Carey in True History of the Kelly Gang. Zinn portrays a complex picture of Civil War-era hostilities, in which poor white Southerners resisted being drafted to die for the right of the wealthy to own slaves, and Northern anti-draft riots escalated into ugly race confrontations between Irish and black workers. The complexities of race surfaced again in Zinn's descriptions of the Populism of the 1890s, a Socialist grass-roots movement turned political party (Zinn argues that it was effectively made impotent by its move away from direct action and into politics) that was surprisingly radical in its demands for fair treatment for small farmers, while still displaying huge amounts of white racism. I learned about the General Strike in Seattle in 1919, in which workers across nearly all industries shut down the city in support of a wage increase for shipyard workers. So too, Zinn chronicles the International Workers of the World free-speech struggles in the early years of the 20th century, and tells of the 900 people jailed under the Espionage Act of 1917 for speaking against US involvement in World War I. From more recent years, I was glad to be reminded of the American Indian activism of the 1970s, when several tribes staged fish-ins to protest the federal withdrawal of ancestral fishing rights on the Nisqually and Columbia Rivers. Other native groups seized Alcatraz Island and the site of the Wounded Knee massacre in attempts to assert their rights to land and to basic visibility—a protest against the prevalent white American notion of Native Americans as a thing of the past, an extinct species, the "Disappearing Indian."

In Voices, I loved best the accounts of ordinary people relating their experiences: first-hand accounts of Virginia slave rebellions; of the flour riots of 1837; of the massive Chicago railroad strikes of 1877; of organizing the unemployed in the Bronx tenements during the Great Depression; of the Stonewall riots of 1969. In addition to these first-hand recollections, there are letters, speeches, a surprising number of statements from defendants to their juries, popular songs and poems, excerpts from novels and memoirs, and a few passages from other third-party histories. Some of these documents seem overblown or poorly written by modern/literary standards (the nineteenth-century speeches are particularly overheated for my taste), but most are fascinating, and a few made me genuinely want to stand up and cheer. The speech to which this passage belongs, delivered by Emma Goldman in 1908, has long been a favorite of mine, and the place I point when trying to explain why I consider myself a humanist, not a patriot:

Indeed, conceit, arrogance, and egotism are the essentials of patriotism. Let me illustrate. Patriotism assumes that our globe is divided into little spots, each one surrounded by an iron gate. Those how have had the fortune of being born on some particular spot, consider themselves better, nobler, grander, more intelligent than the living beings inhabiting any other spot. It is, therefore, the duty of everyone living on that chosen spot to fight, kill, and die in the attempt to impose his superiority upon all others.

And the speech from which this comes, "Why We Fight," delivered in 1988 by Vito Russo and addressing the early apathy of those in power toward the AIDS epidemic: what can I say? It's amazing.

        So, if I'm dying from anything, I'm dying from homophobia. If I'm dying from anything, I'm dying from racism. If I'm dying from anything, it's from indifference and red tape, because these are the things that are preventing an end to this crisis. If I'm dying from anything, I'm dying from Jesse Helms. If I'm dying from anything, I'm dying from the President of the United States. And, especially, if I'm dying from anything, I'm dying from the sensationalism of newspapers and magazines and television shows, which are interested in me, as a human interest story—only as long as I'm willing to be a helpless victim, but not if I'm fighting for my life.
        If I'm dying from anything—I'm dying from the fact that not enough rich, white, heterosexual men have gotten AIDS for anybody to give a shit.

"If I'm dying from anything, I'm dying from Jesse Helms": brilliant. (Incidentally, this speech also made me realize just how fast the messaging around AIDS evolved, because by the time I was old enough to be getting middle-school sex education, which must have been only three or four years after Russo delivered the speech, the educational system was aggressively trying to reverse the mistaken impression that HIV was solely a "gay" disease. Russo's point, that our society should do its best to intervene even if it WERE solely a gay disease, or a poor disease, or a disease affecting people of color, still stands, however.)

As much as the United States has a despicable tradition of violent imperialism and oppression, both within our borders and abroad, it's good to learn or be reminded of concrete ways in which we also have a history of conscientious protest. To what extent the latter tradition can point to concrete results is another question, and I must admit that reading the Zinn duo does sometimes feel like being beat over the head with the atrocities committed by the US government and corporations through the years. Personally, there was nothing too surprising in this aspect of the book, although it's possible that someone who didn't grow up a lefty in Portland "Little Beirut" Oregon might be more surprised by the ongoing abuses Zinn chronicles. Despite whatever difficulties I may have had with this duo, however, I found them very much worthwhile. I plan to use them as starting points to more in-depth investigations of some of the most interesting stories, and I was glad to be reminded that no group, be it country or movement, speaks as a monolith.


  • I love the Vito Russo speech. I did not read these books by Zinn but used to read his articles in Z Magazine faithfully. I think that as brilliant as he was, he had two things going against him. One was his prolixity - most people just choose not to make that kind of reading commitment with nary a vampire in site (or at least, the kind that are immortal). The other was his unfortunate use of buzz phrases (e.g., corporate capitalist hegemony) which I particularly note because I know from my own experience that whenever I start using those phrases I get the J. Alfred Prufrock treatment:
    ("...The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
    And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
    When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall...)
    right before I am tuned out. Not to minimize Zinn's intellect or achievement, but I think that sociologist James Loewen has been more successful in reaching "the masses" or at least some of them because he avoids those two pitfalls. (His book, for example, "Lies My Teacher Told Me" has been somewhat of a success.)
    But I love your thorough summary of Zinn's books and it makes me miss him and want to read these!

  • This is a very lively and provocative post, Emily, but I'm a little ashamed to admit that I read very little history these days as a result of book blogging! I actually used to read more history than literature at one point, but I'm not sure what happened. Anyway, enjoyed your detailed comparison and the Emma Goldman and Vito Russo quotes. Had some of the same issues with Zinn that Jill mentioned (esp. the lefty buzzwords thing), but a fresh mind is a fresh mind and both books sound like they had their moments.

  • This sounds fascinating and I agree with your decision to read the two together. The source documents must add a tremendous amount. To what extent do you have to be American to get the most out of these books? As an external observer how much would I miss?

  • Oh Emily, this sounds great! I've got Zinn's book on my shelf and have been meaning to read it but it's so big I keep putting it off. Thanks for the tip regarding reading Voices of People's History at the same time. I don't have a copy of it but will be sure to get one when I read People's History.

  • This sounds like just the kind of book that would confirm my husband in all his existing biases, so I'm sure he would adore it. I'm thinking Father's Day...

  • I love American history but I can't say I'm particularly interested in A People's History. I know every historian has their biases but I get very suspicious when an historian explicitly sets out to prove a point. The problem with some schools of historiography - i.e. Marxist, Whig - is that they're so deterministic and whittle everything down to a single variable. You can make the postmodernist argument that all history is ultimately subjective because it's basically a narrative, which is an artificial construct, but I still think historians should try to be as objective as possible.

  • I've been wanting to read Zinn for a long time. This is some wonderful analysis. I'm especially intrigued by the Voices which I hadn't heard about before.

  • Jill: LOL to your Eliot reference, and your quip about vampires! Yes, I agree - Zinn occupies a weird place vis-a-vis the "general public," because of just the wordiness & penchant for buzz-phrases you mention. Ironically, I feel both like I'm just his target audience (educated, literary, lefty, with enough patience to make my way through 1300+ pages), and like there are relatively few folks who are hanging out with me in this niche. It's good that other writers are taking on similar projects in a more populist way.

    Richard: Haha, yes, book-blogging really skews toward fiction, doesn't it? You do read a lot of politically-inflected fiction, though. Zinn loves his buzz-phrases, it's true...I'm probably about in the middle on them - if I'm in a bad mood they'll get on my nerves, but most of the time I don't mind them too much.

  • Study Window: That is a VERY interesting question about how a non-American would perceive this book. You're British, right? So you would probably find sections of it very relevant to the history of your own country, since the two dovetail at certain points. Other than that, you don't necessarily need to know the "standard" version of American history in order to find the book interesting. I'd be intrigued to get some perspectives from outside the States!

    Stefanie: Yep, you would enjoy it. I highly recommend reading Voices at the same time, even if the word count does get a bit high. :-)

  • Jenny: You're such a thoughtful wife! :-) I think a pretty valid criticism of books like this is that their main object is to confirm people who already basically agree with the author in their preexisting biases. However, it will definitely give your husband a lot to grump about!

    EL Fay: Heh, yes, obviously I can make/have made that postmodern argument. I am still on the fence about to what extent I believe it, though. On the one hand, I do enjoy history more when I feel like the author is being "objective." But then many times I am jolted into the realization that what I perceive as "objective" is mostly just what I'm used to hearing. When I go back and look at my high school and middle school history books, they were obviously setting out to prove a point (that America is the land of the free / Columbus discovered America / slavery was bad but thanks to MLK we've solved all the problems of inequity and racism, etc.) which I now perceive as very skewed, and I think it was made worse by the pretense that no agenda was being served, that this was "just the facts." So I don't know. I can see both sides of the issue. I think there's something refreshing in, say, the British model of the press, where newspapers explicitly state that they're a Tory or a Labor paper, rather than the American model where Fox News claims to be "fair and balanced." On the other hand, if I knew of a less politicized source that compiled these stories of small-scale organizing & rebellion, maybe I would prefer it. I'll look forward to reading more in-depth/academic histories of a few, and compare/contrast.

  • Marieke: Voices really enriched my experience. 600+ more pages, but I think it's worth it.

  • June 2012

    Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
              1 2
    3 4 5 6 7 8 9
    10 11 12 13 14 15 16
    17 18 19 20 21 22 23
    24 25 26 27 28 29 30


    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography