Zinn for Beginners (For Beginners)

A quick primer on the life of the controversial scholar, who passed away in January of this year.

 

164 pgs., B & W; $14.99

(W : David Cogswell; A: Joe Lee)
Howard Zinn was the very model of the politically-committed professor: he taught at Boston University, published voluminously, and was also active in many causes including the Civil Rights movement and the antiwar movement. His People’s History of the United States, first published in 1980, has sold over two million copies and has become part of popular culture: it’s been mentioned on everything from The Simpsons to Good Will Hunting and reportedly served as an inspiration for Bruce Springsteen’s album Nebraska.
Zinn never claimed neutrality and provoked strong emotional responses from many people. So much so in fact that after his death in January 2010, National Public Radio (NPR) apparently felt it couldn’t give him the usual laudatory obituary but brought in conservative David Horowitz to say things like “Zinn represents a fringe mentality” and “there is absolutely nothing in Howard Zinn’s intellectual output that is worthy of any kind of respect.” Neither is true, but the fact that NPR felt it necessary to slander Zinn in a moment usually reserved for accolades and reviews of accomplishments tells me he retains power even in death: when NPR is scared of you, you must be doing something right. (For the record, NPR obituaries of the conservative figures Oral Roberts and William F. Buckley did not include liberal voices criticizing their lives or work.)
So if the obituary controversy got you interested or if you’d just like to know more about Zinn, a good place to begin is Zinn for Beginners by David Cogswell in the For Beginners series. It’s not neutral, any more than its subject ever was, but will give you a quick overview of his life and major writings and even if you are familiar with Zinn, there’s probably information here you don’t know.
Zinn led quite a life and one I’m not sure is available any longer. A poor kid from the Bronx, he served in World War II then attended college on the GI Bill, getting his PhD from Columbia and doing a post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard. Zinn taught at Spelman College (a historically Black female college in Atlanta) until asked to leave because he encouraged his students to take part in Civil Rights demonstrations, which has to be one of the more ironic twists in recent history. Zinn then taught at Boston University (1964-1988) and remained active in many political causes (frequently locking horns with BU president John Silber) while also publishing many books and articles. Note that these accomplishments were dependent on two things I’m not sure exist for most people today: access to excellent education, even for a poor student with no connections, and secure university employment which provided the time and resources to be involved in the life of the mind. A Howard Zinn of today would likely have dropped out of school for lack of funds or find himself an adjunct too involved with piecing together a living to get much serious writing done.
About half of Zinn for Beginners is devoted to Zinn’s biography, the other half to summarizing A People’s History of the United States. Both are readable, although the biographical section frequently lapses into a style I associated with inspirational books for children which render the subject’s life as a series of significant incidents and dramatic turning points. The prose also seems at times to have been written for children (“Roz and Howard found an instant affinity. Roslyn shared Howard’s passion for reading. In fact, his Russian beauty was deeply absorbed in the works of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy”) although on second thought even kids deserve some style in their books. Zinn for Beginners is an illustrated book rather than a comic and Joe Lee’s art amplifies and comments on major points in the text. There’s also a chronological list of Zinn’s books and an annotated bibliography of his major works. More information about Zinn for Beginners is available from the publisher’s web site http://www.steerforth.com/books/display.pperl?isbn=9781934389409 and it’s available in bookstores or from online sources such as www.amazon.com. | Sarah Boslaugh

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