The following is an excerpt from "Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left" by Martin Duberman [The New Press, $26.95]:
Howard was a person of considerable modesty, neither devious nor manipulative, an “innocent” in the sense of always thinking the best of people. He had scant drive for personal power and few if any self-serving motives behind the political stances he took. Never self-centered, he could be self-absorbed—so involved, say, in a given public issue that he tuned out those around him. But he was basically kind and generous, in person deeply engaging, more interested in persuasion than in confrontation— though he was quite capable of determined resistance. When an interviewer asked Daniel Ellsberg who his own heroes were, he had no hesitation in answering, “First, Howard Zinn.” Noam Chomsky sounded a similar note: “He was devoted, selflessly, to the empowerment” of those who had little. As a teacher, Howard was all but unanimously beloved and revered by his students—even, as a person, by some of the conservative detractors who would unexpectedly appear in his classes. He cared about them, and they knew it.
His legacy as a historian has been more contested, and his radical activism deplored. With A People’s History of the United States, the book he is best remembered for, Howard became a public figure, greatly admired among leftists, greatly denounced by those on the right and even, to a lesser degree, among those who considered themselves liberals or centrists. Outside the historical profession, his adoring fans rank in the millions—and even in his eighties Howard was able to connect with young people. His impact was, and is, multigenerational (in Boston, the Occupy Wall Street camps named their libraries after him).
Within the historical profession, Howard has nearly as many detractors as admirers. One historian has said that Howard had “a very simplified view that everyone who was president was always a stinker and every left-winger was always great. That can’t be true.” No, it isn’t—and Howard never made such a flat-out claim, though his books, taken together, do lean strongly in that direction. It needs to be said that Howard’s work has played a crucial role in providing a corrective to the traditional accounts that omit discussion of the lives of ordinary people or of those who protest against the status quo. Too many high school textbooks continue to emphasize and glorify government, military, and business elites, tout the United States as God’s gift to the planet, and ignore or dismiss the suffering of the underclasses as “their own fault.” Most college-level books about American history have today shifted to a more balanced account, and many historians give Howard (though not Howard alone; he did have a few predecessors, as well as a number of contemporary co-conspirators) the lion’s share of credit for the shift.
This alone should be enough to secure Howard’s reputation. And although A People’s History brought fame and fortune, several of his other books— in particular "SNNC, Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal, and The Politics of History"— were way ahead of their times and may well retain their historical importance. What will most certainly come down to future generations is Howard’s humanity, his exemplary concern for the plight of others, a concern free of condescension or self- importance. Howard always stayed in character—and that character remained centered on a capacious solidarity with the least fortunate.
Howard (middle, with left hand on leg) with antiwar group in Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1971. Marilyn B. Young far left, Noam Chomsky second from right.
At a clerical workers strike at Boston University for a union around 1974; Murray Levin in middle, Frances Fox Piven on right.
Howard in his Air Force uniform, England, 1945
Howard giving an antiwar speech, Boston Common, May 1971.
Howard (tallest in the crowd) marching with the American Veterans Committee, late 1940s.