on December 23, 2004
While there is no doubt that Mr. Zinn is a communist at heart, there is also no doubt that Zinn's view and presentation is very entertaining not to mention pretty factual. Let us not fool ourselves here my friends, every writer who writes about politics or history is going to have a bias and that bias is going to present itself in that author's work.
I am a Republican, born again Christian and I had no problem with Zinn's views, simply because I am a realist. For years we were fed that nonsensical view of Christopher Columbus being a pious man coming to the Americas to bring salvation and religion to the indigenous people or simply just omitting the facts in American history studies that would show a very negative side of our founding fathers.
(THIS IS NOT UNPATRIOTIC)
I don't agree with everything Mr. Zinn has said in this book but it is refreshing to see history told more correctly so than in our public school system which are suppose to educate not indoctrinate.
To my dear republican brethren out there, do not feel that you have to put our fore fathers on a pedestal in order for you to feel patriotic and zealous for your country. The reason I can be a conservative Republican and still agree with a lot of what Zinn has to say is (1. I do not allow a party to think for me, I always keep an open mind, without an open mind we are no different then the followers of David Koresh and other cultic fanatics. (2. We have come a long way in this great country of ours and have much to be proud of regardless of your race or back ground. Let us not view things as liberal or right wing, just be open minded and sift through the facts in different history books and find the truth somewhere in the middle.
I recommend this book. 4 out of 5 stars (-1 star for the indoctrinating tone)
on April 19, 2004
I have noticed a lot of critics saying that this book neglects to mention America's achievments, that it is biased, liberal, radical, revisionist, communist..ect. But the point that these people are missing is that this book is intended to be biased. It is intended to be read as a supplement to the standard textbook American history. For my High Schol U.S. history course, we read this book as well as a more traditional and general text. This allows us to view American history with a very open and critical mind. It allows us to question history as well as the historian reciting it. What Mr. Zinn is trying to do is give us an alternate perspective upon America. A perspective that many of us are blind to. This book is to read with an open mind. Not with a liberal or conservative one. Whether you agree with Howard Zinn or not (I know I have disagreeded with him many times during the course of this reading as well as been in total concensus with) this book provides insight into America's past that many people need to hear. One certainly shouldn't jump to the conclusion that this book is the true American history because it is a very specific and biased one. The book should be read with a traditional history in mind. But one should also not disregard the ideas that this text has to offer. Obviously it has flaws. It was writen by a singal person with his own perspective on America. But every history book I have ever read (as a high school student that is many) has its flaws and its bias. That doesn't invalidate what information it has to offer though. I believe this book should be a standard in classrooms to be read with a more standard U.S. text.
on August 12, 2003
Zinn presents his case clearly and consistently for 688 pages. I enjoyed his POV, especially his attention to the property interests of the founding fathers that set the outer limit of their revolutionary zeal. Zinn is up front about this sympathies from the beginning, and shouldn't be faulted for making his case.
However, I was unhappy with the "history" itself. Zinn often jumps around from event to event and he's sparing with his dates. When he could be specific he's nearly always vague, favoring phrases like "that summer" rather than giving a month or day. It suggests to me that he's drawing from memory or old notes rather than directly from his sources.
He's consciously loose with his sources, giving a bibliography rather than endnotes or footnotes. Granted, there would be a lot of them, but they'd substantiate his claims, especially his statistics. I was often surprised by them and wanted to quote them, but it would be nearly impossible to sort through his book list and track down his reference to, say the percentage of literate white males in 1740. He says he tries to credit his sources in the text where possible, but he never gives a page number, and for periodicals, he doesn't give the date.
I got the feeling, especially in the later chapters that he was drawing heavily on just having read the paper for the last 30 years. In the end, he admits that his history shorts the West, and he draws from East Coast papers of record for much of his analysis. As he nears the present day, he totally loses perspective, and he veers off into what could have been, rather than telling what was. He should have cut the book short after the Vietnam war.
I can't vouch for the factual basis of what he reports, one way or the other, but I was deeply disturbed by his poor referece on page 662 to Barbara Ehrenreich's recent work. He misquotes the title as "Nickeled and Dimed", and goes on to state that she spent a year working at various jobs, including as a factory worker. She only spent three months working odd jobs, and she wasn't a factory worker. After 662 pages, I was left doubting the veracity of everything I read before.
on October 5, 2003
First of all I'm not american and I lack what Zinn often criticizes, a classic american hero-history, so my opinion on this book could be slightly different from an usual american reader review.
One of the reasons I bought A People's History is simply because I received a typical european education very focused on every aspect of main euro countries, say Western ones, with scarce notions about american history; for instance I was taught about the Revolution and the Intervention during the WorldWarII but not much more, and I was curious to learn something more specific especially about the epic figures of the Presidents and the Supreme Court, so I bounced on this book with absolute no clue about Zinn's political view.
I have just finished to read the 2003 edition, and this is what I think about this huge book,
1)If you don't feel shocked and indignated by criticizing classic american heroes such as the Founding Fathers, Lincoln, etc or by talking openly especially about their mistakes and their bad decisions or policies, the book is indeed a good approach to build a true critic sense, for it makes you ask important questions and seek difficult answers, and this is crucial in history teaching. This is indeed important I repeat.
2)Zinn tried to write in a novelist-style, concentrating on a topic and climating from the least to the most important things to say about, while commenting and drawing consequences, but at the same time forgetting completely about the time-line stream, the thing that probably most gives sense to history itself.
This can lead to a very frustrating reading, when you try to find out what happens before and what next, but you simply can't because here he talks about 1887, a line below about 1900, five lines below about 1870 and so on.
3)There are topics very well described along with most incomplete references, last ones especially about the 'rich and powerful' facts, who anyway still remain facts. So if you don't have a classic american education it's sometimes difficult to understand what's going on because everything's focused only and always on the same topics. Along with this you can't find a single note or precise account especially about statistics and statements, so you can never be sure if you can buy what Zinn says.
4)The last chapters of the book tend to fall either in utopistic dreams or melanconic complaining, and Zinn never gives a valid and possible alternative choice; I'll give you just an example: you can't criticize Clinton's policy of reducing the deficit if you omit what are the consequences in the long run of an increasing deficit caused by social either military expenses; it's not so easy as Zinn often says to spend money on social programs and yet promoting an economic growth while creating new jobs! In matter of fact, even if you can't accept this on a political or moral point of view, the economy grows and creates jobs as long as the corporations earn money so they can later invest.
In conclusion I can say I was disappointed from the book from a pure technical historic approach, but I consider anyway the book excellent, and I really mean it, to develop an independent and critic mentality, for actual national american media don't help in this, nor the history class the way is done in american schools, all this not depending on which political party you believe in.
My rating: 3 stars, good but not too much, don't make the mistake neither to be too much impressed nor to consider it junk
on April 10, 2004
Tough book to review. His bias is clear, but he is also upfront about it. I feel the greatest flaw of the book is that it paints history in incredibly "good vs evil" colors. While attesting to narrate a history of the American people, Zinn is also willing to portray much of America as remorseless villains. His portrayal of police forces make them seem as humane as stormtroopers in Star Wars. While the "underclass" have names and inspire sympathy the police forces and conservatives are faceless drones whose only role in history is to step over others. Then violence of his favorites is always justified implicitly while all other forms of violence are a symbol of tyranny. In this he falls in the same flaw he critiques, American history may at times glorify the American role and gloss over its failures, Zinn commits the same mistake in the opposite direction greatly focusing on American failures and forgetting its virtues.
Zinn's book has also very little comparison to other countries, American racism, poverty and misogyny is never placed in a historical context. America's reality becomes always compared to an unexpressed ideal; with no allowance for a period of development in any historical scenario. For instance read Gordon Woods "The Radicalism of the American Revolution" for a completely different view on the American Revolution (and much more comparative to the eighteen century reality of the world).
The book also becomes even more childish as it approaches more modern periods, while in from the Jacksonian and the Progressive era Zinn was willing to basically list the strikes happening in America (again without contrast to foreign comparisons, British for example), as he tries to explain quickly his views in modern American society his lack of arguments becomes more apparent and the superficiality of his so ambitious work is made more evident.
This is also very Marxist rendition of history. Class struggle dominates, and the charming explicative simplicity of Marxist analysis of history is ever present (along with is implied superficiality), along with a good dose of paranoia on the abilities of Big Brother over the centuries. The good and bad guys are so obvious in Zinn's History that all that he could do to make it more so was to dispense white and black hats as the old Westerns did.
Why three stars then? Well the book is also very passionate and a very fast read. Although I greatly disagree with the philosophy in it, this is a very clear presentation of it. The very influence of this book and its views on the American historiography and debate makes it a very important read. Those who agree with everything Zinn says really should read more in depth views of history that can greatly challenge this thesis, while those who can't read it at all must open their minds for the incredible value of the questioning (whether at times sophomoric) that Zinn can create.
on February 11, 2004
I don't know about you, but I work all day and have kids at home. I strongly desire to acquire knoweldge and become more educated, but just because I want to read about something educational doesn't mean I want it written as though it's supposed to be difficult.
Zinn, while adept at research, of course, writes, to a degree, like this, with many apositives, and other elements to sentences which, while descriptive, make it unneceessarily, and unfortunately, tough reading. No fun.
However, while it's not wonderfully written prose, the content appears to be superbly researched and thorough. It really makes you feel cheated by the school system that they taught us everything SO one-sided. To think that potentially 2/3 of colonial citizens were NOT supportive of the revolution is completely contradictory to anything I've been taught. However, it's potentially true. One important thing to know, though, is that this is the other side of the story, and not the whole story.
If only this book were written more simply, I'd lobby for every child 6th grade and up to read and know this book in addition to text books. It has fantastic knowledge, important information for every american and makes each us a better person for reading it.
on June 23, 2003
I believe this is an excellent book to use as a starting point for an in-depth examination of American history. No one, of course, should ever take one book or author's word for it.
What's wonderful about this book are the times when the reader says, "That can't be right!" Good! It may lead some to research the issue or point of contention through other books, leading to a fuller understanding of our history.
Even the anger that this book inspires from those who would try to dismiss it with the scathing label of "Communist" can have a positive side. Perhaps they will be inspired to go on a quest through history books trying to prove Zinn wrong. Nothing could be better than that inspiration: to study the issue more in depth.
Reading this book requires that the reader set aside any assumptions that they had that the United States and our heroes are paragons of virtue. You will see them as they were, warts and all. If a truthful examination of our mistakes offends you, then this book is not for you. However, if you're a person with an open mind, and one who does not think that our country must be perfect in order for you to love it, I think you will find this an enjoyable read.
Zinn writes in a simple, straight-forward prose, not in a dry academic style. While some may not like this, I think that this style makes the book accessable and enjoyable for a wider range of readers.
on September 10, 2004
There are some who consider Howard Zinn an unpatriotic American, but in "A People's History of the United States," he at least proves that he is passionate about the inhabitants of the country.
What makes "A People's History" so fascinating is that Zinn tells it not from the perspective of the privileged and the connected. He largely ignores great battles, noble speeches, landmark legislation and elections. Instead he shines light on the masses, the mob, the worker and the horde, and I mean that in the most complimentary way.
From beginning to end, Zinn refuses to sugarcoat. He gives the greatest possible benefit to the weak and powerless, while putting the powerful in the worst light. The discovery of America is told by discussing the curiosity of the native people toward Columbus, and the brutality with which he returned their gentleness. The era of slavery is covered by telling of white panic in the face of slave resistance and revolts. The building of railroads becomes the tale of Chinese immigrants who were expendable to their white overseers. Zinn demolishes longstanding notions - that blacks were passive in the face of slaveholders; that Americans during World War II were monolithic in their support for the war effort; that historical progress is inevitable. American history for Zinn is the grim forward match of the dispossessed, the poor, the oppressed and abused. Great political events seem less the gracious gifts of beneficent rulers than the reluctant recognition of the "facts on the ground" by a laggard political system.
Sometimes, Zinn seems to go too far with his approach. Finding dissenters to America's war effort during the 1940s certainly took some doing. Sometimes Zinn spends too much time on a particular subject. The chapters about the labor movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, for instance were long-winded and dreary.
Whatever his politics, "A People's History" does an admirable job of filling the gaps left in other histories, by bringing into focus the experience of ordinary American men, women and children. It was they, just as much as the politician and the industrialist, who built America, often at the cost of their lives, strength and sanity.
on September 19, 2004
I'm reading this book, like a former reviewer, for an AP US History class. I have a feeling that it will be thoroughly detested by most of my fellow classmates for the negative spin it puts on nearly all of American history. Zinn is more cynical than nearly any liberal I've ever listened to, with his stunning denouncements of practically every historical figure you've ever read or heard of. He drives home his points with damning quotes and (mostly) well-researched facts. By the end of the book, you are left with a good deal more sympathy for those who don't care that much for our wonderful nation.
However, the main problem with this book is that it must be read in twenty-minute intervals, lest one begin to look at their flag with overwhelming hatred. Zinn never stops exhorting the virtues of the "oppressed" and casting shame upon their elitist "captors". He addresses each historical figure from the most pessimistic angle possible, ignoring every virtue and relentlessly developing every vice. According to Zinn, it seems, there is not a single president, senator, or anyone else famous in all of American history who was not racist, chauvinistic, corrupt, violent, insane, or depraved. He plays devil's advocate to the nation's view, turning every issue upside down - making John Brown's Harper's Ferry raid, generally viewed as a psychotic act in the name of a good cause, out as glorious and exactly what the country needed. In contrast, the Emancipation Proclamation was "limited", and "had all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading."
However, though he forgets the good and wallows in the bad of US History, some of what Zinn reveals is remarkably poignant. One that particularly stays in mind is Lincon's duplicity (modern-day Kerry-bashers call it "flip-flopping") when it came to the rights of blacks. In Chicago, he told one group, "Let us discard all this quibbling about... this race and that race and the other race being inferior." Two months later, in the southern part of the same state, he promised that he did not even intend to "[bring] about the social and political equality of the black and white races." Examples like this fill the book, and can easily make someone read passages twice, to make sure they understood just what these revered men said. Naturally, Chris Columbus is Zinn's target for most of the first chapter, and in a quote that really sets the tone for the rest of the book, Columbus describes the serene beauty and pacisfism of the Arawaks he encounters in the Bahamas, then in the same breath proposes making slaves of them.
"People's History" also contained denounciation upon denounciation of the male Anglo-Saxon race, who appear to be the cause of every ill inflicted upon women, blacks, and those of other religons. Those latters are depicted as helpless victims of the masculine WASP-dominated system, and obviously to a point this is true. But Zinn simply never stops elaborating on this theme... a theme that is crucial to US history, yes, but is not the full essense of it, as is the feel by this book!
Dissent is patriotic. I am a firm believer of that, so I do not feel that this is an unpatriotic book. It is a very liberal book, yes. It is a nuttily one-sided book. It is a cynical book, and anyone who considers themself a conservative will call it an un-American book. I reccomend this novel to the both the overly-patriotic, as a reminder of our country's faults, and the cynical extreme left, who will enjoy it simply because it restates much of what they believe in.
There are those who have called Howard Zinn "unpatriotic" and who have denounced his book as left-wing propaganda. Nothing could be further from the truth. I would like to ask these individuals how they define patriotism. If one defines a patriot as a blind bigot who is ready to march to the ends of the earth for their country without looking where he or she is going, perhaps then Zinn is not a patriot. This book pulls plenty of punches at our country's past. However, these are not exactly cheap punches. Zinn has certainly done his homework. The information in this book is out there for any historian to find. Zinn's cardinal sin, for those on the conservative side of the aisle, is apparently that he collected these incidents together in a single volume.
But if one defines a patriot as someone who believes in attempting to change our country for the better, through the power of a complete history, then Zinn satisfies in spades. Why has Zinn collected these stories and told the history of the United States from the minority perspective? Quite simply, the majority perspective has been taught to us from the first grade. Moreover, he tells us in the opening chapter:
"If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win. I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past's fugitive moments of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare" (11).
There are a couple of important things to point out about Zinn's intentions. First, he believes that a history, in order to provide the present with meaningful content with which to construct a better future, must be a complete history, one that does not hide from its weak moments. Secondly, by telling these forgotten stories, say the full story of Christopher Columbus's journey into the Americas, you will force American citizens to take a second look at the issues and problems of the past, realize their relevancy to the present, and provide the intellectual fodder for us to improve upon our imperfect past.
I know it sounds like I am crafting a high ideal for this book, but I think the ideal is true to Zinn's intentions. Read this book if you would like to explore American history from an angle that is frequently passed over in standard history books and courses. Any student of history will realize that all of these angles--be they liberal, conservative, etc.--are just that--merely angles or perspectives. But the "truth" cannot be found in any single one of these perspectives. Rather, by taking in the totality of perspectives, one comes to understand history and find meaning in the totality of our experience.