on October 31, 2002
This book has left several impressions on me. First, it's hard to get through, due both to its content (disturbing) and its style (dry, with a tendency to tell each chapter in the same formulaic method).
Aside from those two criticisms, the account is fascinating. From the beginning, you're wretching at the accounts told of Columbus' barbarism, and soon begin to see the propaganda the American school system has taught us as just that.
With that said, I think it would be wise to view this in its context. It is not the be-all-end-all account of American history. It should be balanced with other perspectives. To come away believing America an evil empire I think would be to lose sight of the reality of our history: namely that despite the corruption and evil, the principles written down in our Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights have lived up to their true promise and continually get closer to their ideal. An informed electorate is essential to a functioning democracy, and the facts presented here go a long way towards helping Americans confront their dark past and learn from it, rather than trying to sugar-coat it to prop us up as an honorable Christian nation with a right to arrogance. The truth is nothing to fear. Still, I recommend trying a conservative viewpoint after this, like Paul Johnson's "A History of the American People". That way you'll come away with both sides of the story, rather than an overly slanted perspective. As in all things, don't ever fear a dissenting opinion. Fundamentalism from the right _and_ left is dangerous. Keep an open mind and weigh both side's arguments for yourself before you join a bandwagon </rant>
After reading this book, I've become more skeptical of patriotism based on the founding father's genius and benevolence, but much more proud of the achievements of regular Americans who often gave their lives fighting a corrupt government that used religion and money to support the rich and exploit the poor. Americans do have a history to be proud of, but the over-riding theme that I came away with was that it is possible for Americans to make a difference in their government and the world today. We need to take action and contribute to making this country great, not just rest on the acheivements of those who came before us and made our country what it is.
on May 30, 2011
I had put this book off for quite some time, and was initially very excited about it. I had read about 1/2 of the first chapter while at a friends house and was blown away by the blunt treatment of a sensitive subject. I was also hopeful that an author with a very readable yet authoritative style was about to present a side of history that is so rarely told. In the end, I was disapointed to the point that I could barely finish the work.
To start off, the premise is exceptional - that part of the reason human history is so repeatedly violent is it is presented from the glorious leader's - the elite's - standpoint, and not the suffering individuals which are either the cogs of the machine or trampled in its path. To this end the first chapter starts with a bang - presenting nothing more than an excerpt from Columbus' journal - which makes me question how the hell we could have glorified him so much in grade school. It is unfortunate that this point could not be carried through the rest of the work.
A brief sample of complaints:
1) Lack of sources. Of course history is opinionated - I expected and accepted that at the outset from this work - but he very rarely even makes an attempt to justify outlandish historical claims with objective evidence. For example, saying 'a study of 303...executives.... showed that 90% came from upper or middle class.....making rags to riches a....useful myth for control.' Immediately I ask: a) Was that typical of the population at large? b) Was the majority of that sample middle class, who themselves were only one generation away from lower class? These would seem to impact is argument greatly.
2) Lack of perspective. Related to the above, he will often use specific situations (which are moving) to make his point, but give no overall perspective of how representative a sample is to the population at large. This is a very basic request of an historical interpretation. We live in a very, very, large country, and individual stories of any nature are a dime a dozen - if you give me no perspective, how am I to know if this is the average, or the extreme? Life is full of tragedy - his attempted point is that this tragedy in America has been systematic. Thus, it is reasonable to expect anectdotal information to be backed by credible (or the best available) accounts possible. Ironic that a work painted as 'scholarly' lacks this core component.
3) His bizzarre insistance that American slavery was the worst slavery in the history of the world. It seems strange to discuss which form of something as degrading as slavery was 'better', but to clearly and repeatedly state that America was the worst place ever to be a slave seems absurd. Take for instance the aftermath of the Roman slavery rebellion led by Spartacus - I believe over 5000 people (who surrendered) were systematically crucified across the country. I very much doubt American slavery could compete though, even if it could, it seems almost petty to argue it as such.
Its too bad. This is an immensely important topic which deserves comprehensive, scholarly treatment. If this is what you were expecting from this book, keep looking.
on December 12, 2016
This is an excellent and very disturbing book; one that also should be required in high school and as a certainty, in any U.S. History college curriculum. It reaffirms my beliefs in how so many have been left out by so few and why ignorance, rather than intelligence is pervasive in our society.
on October 8, 2015
I had the original publication, but it got lost so I bought the current one which is expand to two recent years. Zinn passed away, but this is an important work! It only takes about two pages to realize that he was a Leftest and some have said he was anti-America. I, like most learned how great America is and I will take that belief to my grave! He brings expansive and truth about the negatives of our history. It's widely known that we wanted Spain out of Cuba and probably arranged for the Maine being blown up in Havana harbor,. he gives intricate details about it. The Trail of Tears is known about, but not the complete and pitiful details that he gives us. Another was the Mexican war which was started by us with accusations of attacks from the Mexicans, when we staged the attack with orders from Gen. Zachary Taylor along the Rio Grand far from the acknowledged border further north along the Nueces River at the Mexican Provincial Capitol of Corpus Christi. Then president Polk wanted territorial expansion and he got it! These are only a few, but important examples of the real historic events of the U.S. Sure, we need to balance with all the wonderfully good things America has done and what some of the horrible events by others!
on December 11, 2016
Super well done! Gave to a friend who is a history teacher as a gift and they were blown away! they have told me consistently how well written and nice it is, especially when history can be hard to read but when written as a narrative it can be good.
on October 15, 2016
‘A People’s History of America,’ by Howard Zinn has become a classic example of Non-conformist perspectives of American history because Howard Zinn dared to challenge the old cliché that ‘history is written by the victors.’ He seeks nothing less than a fresh angle on how history is written, with the goal of changing it from ‘his story’ to a more inclusive ‘our story.’
His task is ambitious and as a reader wades through, at times they may ask themselves if he has bitten off more than he can chew, because he seeks nothing less than to capture the voices of the ‘little people,’ the activists on the front lines fighting the daily battles for civil rights, worker’s rights, and indigenous peoples’ rights. His, is not a history of big name leaders, but a history of the regular people on Main street, the nameless people who propelled our nation’s heroes to their places in America’s pageant.
At times poetic, at other times tragic, this book captures the feelings of the people as they both win and lose their struggles to create a system fair for all. Throughout Mr. Zinn effectively utilizes narratives of common men and women in order to illustrate his theme that in America’s history there has been a constant struggle between those with power and those without. Those with power have continuously attempted to put down people’s movements by coopting those without power, by suppressing their voice or their rights to organize. Tragically, as Mr. Zinn points out, this phenomenon has often been displayed in a political process that de-emphasized the issues of the day, or utilized propaganda to divert attention away. Too much of the time the wishes of those seeking inclusion or access to resources have not been heard or acted upon.
Mr. Zin makes the case that the political parties that were meant to reflect the voice of the people have been coopted to represent the will of the elite, or the corporations. He demonstrates this by illustrating how the political platforms of Democrats and Republicans often mirror each other instead of giving voters a real choice between different political visions.
His overview of history begins with a revisionist narrative of Columbus’s arrival. Looking at colonization from an indigenous perspective, he portrays the tragic loss of population, land, and rights of indigenous tribes. Yet he also demonstrates the resiliency of Indigenous peoples despite the violence perpetuated against them.
Continuing with a fresh perspective of the American revolution, he illustrates that the revolution was not a uniform attempt by a united populace to free the U.S. from British rule. Instead there were diverse actors and latent internal conflict between local elites and a powerless populace that the elite attempted to control while also subverting the authority of the British crown. He portrays how the protests of the powerless was diverted by the local elite into a revolt against England, leading to the formation of the American republic. He also makes the case that this new government made little attempt to include the commoners, inadvertently sowing the seeds for continued turmoil.
From the revolution to contemporary times, his theme turns to the attempt by the powerless to create a democracy and economic system inclusive of all, and continued attempts by a rising nascent elite to either suppress or coopt the powerless. Throughout this revisionist account he intersperses the story of America’s minorities. Mr. Zinn shares the painful experience of African Americans brought over as slaves and their struggle to end slavery and obtain their rights, a struggle that continues to today despite the momentous gains that were achieved during the Civil Rights era in the 1960’s.
Writing from the Mexican American perspective, he portrays how the redrawing of the borders after the war with Mexico made Mexican Americans ‘strangers in their own land.’ He also brings in the voice of immigrants and women; and all those who were excluded from the Republic’s decision making process, demonstrating the case that America’s history has been a movement toward inclusion.
Yet, he admits that the work of creating a more inclusive society is far from over, and for each gain there has also been loss. For example, he brings in compelling evidence that the presidencies of Reagan and Clinton dismantled many of the gains achieved by working class people during the Great Depression.
At times readers may feel like the message is getting lost in the detail. Yet, it’s Mr. Zinn’s attention to these details through the voices of common people that makes ‘A People’s history of America’ a remarkable achievement in historical revisionism. This book should be studied alongside any textbook account of America’s history, just for the sake of the alternative view that it offers.
on September 27, 2016
A friend did me a great service by recommending this book. After completing about half of the book, I believe it should be required reading in every American History class in all schools. I knew that people of color had been persecuted, but never dreamed the extent to which bias, prejudice, bigotry, cruelty and outright slaughter and murder had been carried out against them ever since the founding of our country. I am appalled by how our founding fathers and those who followed them in the federal government for the next two hundred years treated blacks, as well as others who immigrated from other countries. And all of it was for money; to enrich the titans of those times, whose fortunes have been enlarged upon and handed down to their heirs of today. Think Morgan and Rockefeller to name only two. Howard Zinn did painstaking research for this book over a period of many years, and reveals clearly how state and federal laws discriminated against all people who were not members of the landed class; colored, white and foreigners. The system was rigged to keep those who received land grants and became very wealthy in power so that they became richer and the poor remained under their control financially, and thus completely. PLEASE READ THIS BOOK IF YOU WISH TO KNOW THE TRUTH ABOUT OUR HISTORY. I look forward to what I will learn in reading the rest of the book.
on September 26, 2015
If I had read this book when I was 15, I might have been shocked. Coming to it at 40 -- and having read excerpts of it over the years -- I was surprised only by how much of it I already knew. I consider myself a patriotic American, and part of that means never being afraid to confront the realities of our nation's history. I believe the United States has been, all in all, a positive force in the world, and one that has the potential to be a truly free nation for all its residents. But I am also aware that it is a nation built largely by slaves on land conquered through genocide, that, like much of the world, kept a full half of its population in a condition of subservience due to gender for much of its history.
I see this book as a complement and contrast to the more jingoistic "history" that was taught in schools in my day. I would not recommend it as a sole text any more than I would recommend the traditional hagiographic accounts of the Great Men bringing "civilization" to a primitive continent as a sole text. Zinn both rebuts these idealized views of the growth of the United States into a world power, and adds in the bits of history omitted from most conventional histories -- particularly the radical labor movements of the 1870s through 1920s.
You need not be a radical nor a cynic to appreciate a greater understanding of our nation's ills. In fact, it may make your reverence for what that United States could be, and should be, even stronger.
on February 13, 2010
When thinking about Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States, I am reminded of E.H. Carr's seminal work "What is History?" whereby he stated: "The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy, but one which it is very hard to eradicate". As Carr famously stated, millions of people had crossed the Rubicon, but only Julius Caesar's crossing in 49 BC has been given normative value by historians. For those familiar with the philosophical treatment of historical understanding in Tolstoy's War and Peace, this sentiment will ring true. A People's History is designed to give voice to those millions who passed the rubicon but never found their way into the annuals of history.
A couple of points. This book was intended to be a supplement as opposed to a strictly chronological account of history that will give you the bullet points for the most important people, dates and events. [sic] It is not meant to be a replacement for a more standardized textbook.
Secondly, Zinn did not hate America, and he in fact stated:
"I want young people to understand that ours is a beautiful country, but it has been taken over by men who have no respect for human rights or constitutional liberties. Our people are basically decent and caring, and our highest ideals are expressed in the Declaration of Independence, which was that all of us have an equal right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The history of our country, I point out in my book, is a striving, against corporate robber barons and war makers, to make those ideals a reality-and all of us, of whatever age, can find immense satisfaction in becoming part of that."
Regardless of your political position, between the Great Recession and the Iraq war, there is a relevance to this sentiment that cuts across political lines.
Now, what one will notice in the bulk of the one star reviews is the sense that either the reviewer has not read the book, they copied and pasted their criticism from another source or they have strictly given the book one star because it does not conform with their view of reality. "Blame America first", "socialism", "communism", "Marx, "liberal propaganda", you can easily get the gist of the talking points because many American conservatives apparently got the same memo in dismissing anything they don't agree with. The disservice they do to themselves and the sphere of ideas in the outright dismissal of any perspective which does not conform to their own is truly sad. When someone gives a book one star merely for not conforming to their view of reality,they have obviously lost the plot.
In university I knew many conservative history professors who liked and used Zinn's work. They believed it was important to incorporate and deal with the claims that Zinn made. You cannot whitewash history and blindly stick by the most comforting narrative. That does not mean that one should agree with Zinn's conclusions or think that he has a monopoly on the truth. Zinn himself would not have wanted that.
For those who claim Zinn is a socialist or any other kind of -ist, that he is not completely objective, they have obviously never done any research. Pure positivism was dismissed long ago. Even Max Webber started that our subjective bias comes in the moment we choose to study something, for by seeing the subject matter as valuable, we have placed a normative value on it. There is no pure value objectivity, stating one's position and bias from the outset is what responsible social scientists do these days. A dryly academic text with an obvious bias concealed by a detached form of writing gives a falsely omniscient perspective whose reality is psychological but not objective. However they write, they are just a person, and without expressing their biases it will inevitably turn up in their work without necessarily being obvious. This is far more dangerous than what Zinn does in stating his bias from the outset. So it is a red herring to dismiss Zinn for having a perspective. We all have one and it will come into whatever we do.
There is no knowable, objective reality (for humans) living in the Platonic world of perfect forms. History was a puzzle of immeasurable size that was blown apart and the pieces scattered over the cosmos. The vast majority of the pieces are gone, never to return. We are stabbing at an imperfect speculation, not ultimate truth when we engage in historical study. Any physicist will tell you that the particle wave duality of light has pretty much closed the book on the notion that we can objectively, perfectly know anything.
This book is important because the poison of partisan politics has come to dominate even the dialogue of academic research. If the sole criterion for giving a book one star is the notion that you don't agree with its thesis, then you obviously live in a fragile world and are incapable of being challenged intellectually. This book is of the upmost importance for the conservative to read and digest. In developing a coherent narrative of the United States, you need to wrestle with its sins and determine, despite our historical shortcomings and transgressions, what is it that makes this imperfect union the pinnacle of nation states if one agrees with that prospect. For the liberal, you should not view Zinn's work as the last word on anything, but rather use it as a stepping stone to further develop your own historical understanding and consider how well has American done on a relative scale in light of the political, societal and human failings that have marred all human civilizations. This book is well worth the challenges it presents, and should be a 5 star treat for the conservative who loves his country and wants to develop the most cogent and nuanced argument as to why that is the case despite those unsettling realities to be found in this book as well as the liberal who wants to give voice to his disaffection with certain aspects of American society and the reasons why we need to change it. This is not another tool in the mindless and poisonous Manichean bifurcation of American politics. It is a vehicle to help you strengthen and deepen your understanding of US history, regardless from which direction you are coming. Recommended to all who are interested in the journey of learning as opposed to a presupposed outcome that serves a vested interest.
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.