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“Writing History With Lightning”: Wherein a Professionally-Trained Historian Reads a Popular Classic That Was Neither Assigned Nor Methodically Discussed During Any Stage of His Formal Education: Part I

January 3, 2013

The Book

The Book

Upon viewing D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation for the first time, Woodrow Wilson purportedly said, “It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so true.” Despite the fact that the statement has been repeated often enough such that it has obtained near canonical status, no primary evidence exists to corroborate Wilson’s alleged utterance. Even so, the quote is often repeated in history textbooks to make a point about Progressive Era racism at the highest levels. Go figure. Textbooks are not known for their scientific standards of accuracy in relation to evidence

In his popular classic A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn doesn’t cite Wilson’s quote, nor Griffith’s movie. But it feels ripe for analysis in a book like Zinn’s—a book that powerfully sides with the oppressed in retelling the history of the United States. I haven’t yet reached the passages concerned with Wilson, but I feel assured that Wilson won’t be celebrated in any sense.

I come to Zinn’s work by way of a challenge. I recently read Sam Wineburg’s retrospective review* of A People’s History, and posted it on my Facebook page, on Dec. 18, as follows: “Sam Wineburg takes down Zinn’s *A People’s History of the the United States* in the Winter 2012-13 edition of the *American Educator*. Check out the last few pages. Wineburg even slips in a jab at Jon Zimmerman.”

After posting I received some pushback from a former Monmouth College colleague (who I’ll leave nameless here unless she/he chooses otherwise):

Hard hitting and timely! Oh, wait, it’s neither of those things. …Shorter Wineburg, “Old leftists are stupid and I hate them.” …To go a bit further, it’s really cheap and tired to criticize a popular history meant to offer a counter-balancing perspective for being not academic enough and unbalanced. If some of the positions that Zinn championed have since been discredited, well what hasn’t? I wouldn’t assign it (because it’s 32 years later and we have a lot of work by professional historians that does the same thing better), but I would never discourage anyone from reading it.

I then did something that, in retrospect, I did too vigorously: I defended Wineburg’s review without the foundational knowledge of having read Zinn’s book. I’m not ashamed of defending Wineburg. I stand up for all sorts of folks when I think another reader has short-changed the author’s work, whether review, essay, or book. But I don’t always vigorously do so. After more exchange about the review, which involved friends and colleagues beyond my former Monmouth colleague, here’s what I wrote (mildly reformatted with all original wording):

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Before I say one more word to anyone’s points, I want to confess some things:

(1) I admire Sam Wineburg a great deal;
(2) I have never read, to my chagrin, Zinn’s book. This is probably the straw that breaks the camel’s back, so I’ll do that;
(3) I was not aware of
[Michael] Kazin’s review** before reading Wineburg’s essay. That said, the fact that Wineburg is a trustworthy character and that he prominently mentions Kazin’s review leads me to believe that this review says something different, speaks to different points and to different audiences;
(4) I have long been annoyed with the way some left-leaning folks trot out *A People’s History* as if it should inspire everyone, the way some liberals trot out stuff by Schlesinger, or Civil War folks trot out MacPherson, or war buffs trot out Keegan/Shirer, or Evangelicals trot out David Barton. Zinn attracts the hero-worshipping crowd in a way that few historians do, so I feel somewhat justified in being annoyed (still) with his book and pleased that Wineburg debunks it. …Given these facts and sensibilities, I’ll stop now. I’ll go find a tattered copy with Lefty drool stains and read it so I can actually be annoyed on a firsthand rather than secondhand basis. …
(5): My use of the phrase “take down” came off stronger than I intended. …Now I’m done until I read it.

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So here I am, reading the book. That’s almost never a bad thing. Even with the most horrible books, it’s always better to write with first-hand knowledge. As of today I’m 30 pages in, having completed chapter one and one-half of chapter two.

Beginning with this post, I am writing a multi-part, first-draft reader response to Zinn’s lightning bottled up on a page (how’s that for mixed metaphors?!). Per my long-winded, 17th-century-esque title, a reminder is in order: this reading is by a professionally-trained historian who was never assigned the book and never participated in any methodical discussion of it during any stage of his formal education. Should I have been assigned the book? Probably. But, reflecting on the sequence of my undergraduate and graduate courses, I can understand why it was omitted. Should I have read the book on my own? Probably, especially after it received a prominent reference in one of my favorite films, Good Will Hunting (1997). Here’s the quote from Will Hunting: “You wanna read a real History book, read Howard Zinn’s People of the United States, that book will fuckin’ knock you on your ass.”

Given that, these responses will alternate between mere impressions and deep analytical dives. My sense is that the posts will lean more to the former than the latter, due to time constraints. I will mention the Wineburg review briefly along the way (and maybe other reviews), but will save my full assessment for the end. As of this post I have read no reviews other than Wineburg’s. Here goes:

Pre-reading Analysis

- You know you’re reading a popular history by a cult figure when the last sixteen pages of your book is filled with an interview with the author and excerpts from the author’s other works. I skimmed it, reading closely only the part about how Fox Television planned a 10-12 hour miniseries of the book. Of course that was never brought to fruition.
– Having been polluted by read Wineburg’s review, I attended immediately to the Bibliography. Wineburg is right that many of the references are dated. Most are from the 1970s, from the heights of revisionism in all subjects. Those books and articles would most certainly not have felt dated when Zinn’s book first appeared in 1980. I expect that I will have little criticism of Zinn’s sources or analysis until he reaches my chronological specialties (post-Civil War and 20th-century America).
– So here’s point of departure #1 from a academic study: The book contains neither a Preface nor an Introduction, so I’ll have to wait for some sense of Zinn’s theory and philosophy of history. Because I love discussions of historical theory, this is a let down. But I’m not annoyed. It’s a popular text, and I assume that Zinn will bring up his perspective later.

Chapter 1

- The immediate discussion of Columbus, the Bahamas, Hispaniola, Cuba, Arawak Indians, and Columbus’s atrocities is effective. I’ve read around this topic several times, from several authors, but hadn’t read anything this pointed. It’s cringe-inducing and harrowing. Score one for Zinn.
– The extensive use of Bartolomé de las Casas is also effective. It’s a trusted source from the period, and backed up by analysis from recent historians. Samuel Eliot Morison’s dated work on Columbus is very much undermined, revealed as a falsely celebratory and subjective. How we still debate about the legitimacy of Columbus Day is beyond me.
– Just after the rhetorical destruction of Columbus, Zinn reveals his philosophy of history (pp. 8-11, 17-18 in my text). As presented in the text, it’s hard to argue with Zinn’s perspective: navigate the fuzzy lines of selection and emphasis to uncover unjust narration and presentation, write with urgency while avoiding presentism, undermine the unbroken narrative of Progress with a capital “P,” retell the story from the point of view of the victims, expose ideology used in support of political power, vividly re-present the atrocities inflicted for the sake of those in power, avoid romanticizing the victims, be skeptical of formal government structures, etc.
– For the remainder of the chapter, the discussion of both European (Spanish, English, and American settler) atrocities and the existing complex structure of native civilizations (e.g. Iroquis and Cahokians) is impressive. And damning of the whole Age of “Exploration” and settlement. And also horrific and cringe-inducing. It’s good to be vigorously reminded of just how bloody the whole era was.
– Summation: Excellent. This chapter ought to be assigned reading from high-school onward. And the assignment should be repeated in every undergraduate historiography class, as well as for first-year graduate students. For the last, it would serve well in the first few weeks of a course, ensuring that not student could ever avoid seeing at least a portion of a text that inspires so many on the left.

I’m only half finished with chapter two, so I’ll hold off on impressions until the next installment. – TL

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* The review is also available at HNN.
** The full citation of the Kazin review is in Wineburg’s article.

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