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.