On 27th January 2010 I had just finished setting up my first apartment. I was 23, I was in love, the world awaited my storm. I had an independent study in which to be an Intellectual. I had a boyfriend who did the dishes. Nothing could stop me now, this was It. It was perhaps the last time in my life I would be incorrigibly optimistic.
That was the day Howard Zinn died. That was the day when, though I didn’t know it then, I set out to be a writer. Was that a fair trade on the universal balance? Probably not. But this is how I began. I restrained myself from tinkering too much with this elegy, and not only because I’d end up rewriting it entirely. It might be verbose and a little pompous, but it was written for love, and that is rare in this writing life. Besides, as it turns out, I did spend 2010 researching the Reformation and (in)direct democracy, and there is a lot to be said for beginning a new life with an act of mourning. In the darkest part of this silent Sunday morning, as Barthes might have said (but did not quite), I was vigilant. And all of him leaped before my eyes.
Professor Howard Zinn died on 27th January 2010, a fortnight ago at the time of writing. Apart from the resigned rage one feels about the mortality of one’s heroes, my primary emotion was anticipation. I had recently procured, with some difficulty, a copy of Zinn’s Passionate Declarations. I now had good reason to ignore boring daily life and work my way through Zinn’s legacy, a project as inviting as it is daunting. After a month spent separated from my library, the prospect of a reading list soothed me.
In the fortnight since his death was announced, I have spent many nights listening to his lectures, mining his books, locating his prolific journalism. I spent even more time tracking Zinn within a maze of historiography: all great scholars spin a web around them that can prove as revelatory as dissecting the shape of the beast itself. I gave myself a week to “get a grip” on Zinn, and have never underestimated a task more.
It was not the sheer profligacy of his work, as I never expected to read all of it, but the amazing variety of subjects that his writing suggested that ultimately did me in. It’s difficult to chart matters in an organized fashion when a single book (Passionate Declarations) can make you want to research everything from the Reformation to direct democracy. When one ventures into the vast terrain of work inspired by or transformed by Zinn’s historiography the project looses all moorings in rationality. It becomes epic, spawning academic cottage industries.
I have no doubt such a fate lies in store for the late, great Professor Zinn. I suspect he would be amused by all the posthumous interest, considering he spent his lifetime languishing in academia’s back closet, but he wouldn’t be surprised. Genius is historically betrayed by the grave.
I have a weakness for the interwar generation of polymaths, and Zinn entered my imagination firmly on a pedestal long before I found a copy of the People’s History of the United States. It is one that is yet to ossify, but our affair is still in the early stages of passion. As writers grow familiar, they also get friendlier, inviting a degree of mockery and repartee into the relationship. This is where one starts clashing wits, one’s own knowledge of the world challenging their version of events. This is a critical stage of the relationship. If the writing grows chilly, the rapport is never fully re-established. There might be respect, even reverence, but the banter ceases. One reads to appreciate, not to challenge and engage: a worthy endeavor, but the take-home, as they say, is lower.
On the other hand, if the argument should stay warm, reading a book can change your life. If this happens over a body of work, one commits the folly of loving a writer implicitly and unconditionally. Zinn and I aren’t there yet, but I see a bright future. He has written close to 20 books, from plays to polemics, their only apparent link his historical perspicacity. One, at least, I know to be a classic. While Passionate Declarations is an absorbing and informative anthology, the People’s History of the United States (hereinafter People’s History) is a wholly different creature: it is unique.
In a quirk of fate, I started reading a People’s History on 27 January 2009. I remember the date exactly because it was the day I started a two month internship that was to help me land a respectable job I would enjoy. I carried it with me to the office every day, reading in the stairwell whenever I felt as trapped as the factory girls it describes so vividly. I was working in Gurgaon, accessible only by road, the only part of India where global fashion seasons make a discernible difference to retail profits and where residents frequently say things like “It’s just like a little piece of America” in their pitch to potential tenants.
Gurgaon felt nothing like the vague memory I had of the US, and reading Zinn only confirmed my hunch that it was a completely Indian monster. It gets its patina by spatially concentrating the transcontinental elite that have exported canned “American culture” in the course of their diaspora: malls, karaoke bars, pizza joints, air conditioning. I felt adrift, overwhelmed by financial concerns and oppressed by distances that made it impossible to walk anywhere it was possible to see the sky. Reading the People’s History was a comforting glimpse into realities where people living in less gilded but equally stifling conditions overturned history and wrested liberty from chance. If it is possible to assign agency to a book, it made my decision about the job. It showed me that everything the society I lived in was craving to be — this hopeful “Americanization” everywhere around me — was illusory. The problems that plagued my society were as prevalent in its alleged model.
I ended that internship shorn of my romantic assumptions about the US, as well as astonished by how much of my knowledge of American history was clouded by accepted wisdom and easy conclusions. I believed wholesale the house version when it came to the first two of Zinn’s “three holy wars”. My skepticism for this century’s war mongering was well developed, but Zinn stunned me by extending the logic of my reservations to wars usually treated as ideologically pristine.
The 1776 war won America independence from the British, the absolute virtue of which is undeniable to any Indian who has had cause to ponder colonialism. As an aside, one often admired how surgical the Yankees were about asserting their rights, especially when compared to our own messy century long struggle. It took Howard Zinn to show me the consequences of that war, and how the transfer of control worked out in the lives of the people who had created the revolution. It helped me understand our struggle better; to confront “clinical” wars and uncover their real costs.
His narrative was even more compelling when it came to the civil war and the hidden causes behind it, of which abolitionism was at best a minor footnote. I am not well disposed towards authority, but I have my fair share of favorite leaders. I don’t think any of them has ever been evicted from my hall of fame with as much celerity as Abraham Lincoln after I read Zinn’s telling of that harsh, cruel, and ultimately pointless war. Yet with the loss of romance came reassurance. It was tremendously liberating to think that Detroit was as doomed as Patna, and that people in mill towns in America had rebelled just as surely as the weavers of Ahmedabad about losing their livelihoods to machines. Suddenly the urge to escape geography was not so compelling: the metropolis might broaden one’s experience, but it is unlikely to change one’s fate.
People’s History changed the face of American history; giving us, at long last, a definitive class history of the United States. It was a project of immense scope to undertake, and it required as much empirical ingenuity as conceptual imagination. The craft in writing history is in arranging facts to supplement narratives that cast fresh light on things lost to active memory. If you’re writing a marginal history, from the point of view of people usually ignored or forgotten, simply collecting the facts that bolster a 500 year history is an incredible achievement. It requires a historical detective to look at primary material and draw out the story it has repressed, rather than the one it has extolled.
In the facts it used, the questions it asked, and the things it criticized, People’s History is unabashedly Marxist. But it benefits from the fact that its author is unabashedly not, at least as conventionally understood. As a result the book never makes it feel like history is run by rooms of statisticians, like more strictly materialist books do. Unlike the dry pedantism of scientific materialism, Howard Zinn makes marxist history sexy, and accessible. The people behind the scenes are still people, powerful people: leaders, organizers, figureheads. The currents of history are immune to individual effort, but Zinn remains sensitive to questions about how human beings and their conditions interact.
This is the touchstone of his historiography: the big changes to human destiny are never impersonal, but they are pushed along by forces that are too big for any single person to manipulate or comprehend, especially at the time of their unfolding. History is always pushed to crossroads by what Matthew Arnold once called “the turbid ebb and flow of human misery”. A great historian teaches how to balance the currents of history and the individuals that charted our course through them, and it is a matter of great sorrow that we have lost such a gifted practitioner of the art. He has, however, left us a legacy of words and deeds; a legacy which will tell people in coming centuries what life in the preceding ones was like, and why it was the way it was. Even more optimistically, perhaps he will be remembered as the chronicler of nasty, brutish times from which humanity has since evolved, in no small part because Howard Zinn lit a lamp through the darkness.