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But for many other Americans, Zinn’s book, first published in 1980, was a revelatory piece of historical writing. It provided them with their first opportunity to read history from “the bottom up” and to see, as the historian framed it in the book’s opening chapter,
the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish, of the Mexican war as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott’s army, of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills, of the Spanish-American war as seen by the Cubans, the conquest of the Philippines as seen by black soldiers on Luzon, the Gilded Age as seen by Southern farmers, the First World War as seen by socialists, the Second World War as seen by pacifists, the New Deal as seen by blacks in Harlem, the postwar American empire as seen by peons in Latin America.
This was a highly politicized history, one that questioned established scholarly conventions of objectivity. It found an enormous readership, attracting fans with experience of activism during the 1960s and 1970s. But the book especially captured the attention of that generation’s children and grandchildren, who interpreted it as an antidote to the insipid history presented in their high-school classrooms.
Published by Harper & Row, A People’s History has sold more than two million copies and been translated into numerous foreign languages. It therefore stands as an example of the enduring popularity of historical writing aimed at non-academic audiences during the second half of the twentieth century. However, as Sowell’s 1987 excoriation highlights, Zinn attracted a more partisan response from his readers than previous works of popular history by liberal scholars like Richard Hofstadter, Daniel Boorstin, and John Hope Franklin. How could a 600-page textbook synthesis of left-wing historical writing cause such consternation on the right (as well as in certain sections of the historical profession), while generating such devotion on the left? Part of the answer to this question lies in the matter of timing: Zinn’s book emerged amid the “culture wars” of the 1980s and 1990s, a moment in which conservatives pushed back against the liberal and radical agendas forged by activists and intellectuals during the 1960s. In part, these were debates about national history, and whether the purpose of learning about that history was to make students more patriotic about, or more critical of, their nation’s past.
Zinn’s was a highly politicized history, one that questioned established scholarly conventions of objectivity. It found an enormous readership.
Zinn’s book was the product of a moment a lot like our own, in which intense debate rages about the political meaning of history. For example, new attempts to challenge popular narratives about the American past, such as “The 1619 Project,” launched by the journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and published by The New York Times, have been met with hyperbolic conservative opposition from activists, journalists, and politicians, as well as more measured but nonetheless significant pushback from within the historical profession. Not only this, but some of those conservative politicians, including the governors of states like Texas and Florida, are seeking to impose strict new standards on the teaching of history in their states’ school and university systems, in the process waging a so-called “war on woke.” The story of Zinn and A People’s History provides us with a case study in how an author of popular history was able to navigate such controversy and, in fact, make it work to his advantage.
In 1976, just after America’s defeat in Southeast Asia, Zinn reached an agreement with Harper & Row to publish a manuscript entitled A People’s History of the United States, which would be “one-volume, easy to read, radical in viewpoint.” The historian was first approached by the company’s Junior Books Division in 1975 to publish an updated version of his book Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal (1967) aimed at young readers. The editor who initially engaged Zinn, Elaine Edelman, suggested that the material on America’s most recent war circulating in high-school textbooks was simply not accurate, and that this highlighted the emergence of a “post-Vietnam generation … that’s turning away from the consciousness of the 1960s.” In response, she told Zinn that it was “up to people like you to turn your understanding and talents to these kids — kids three and four years away from voting for the next President.”
It was out of these conversations that Zinn’s relationship with Harper’s Trade Division ultimately developed, along with his understanding of what it meant for popular writing to be “easy to read.” When the manuscript of A People’s History first arrived at the publisher, it was sent not only to readers willing to comment on its applicability for trade audiences, but also to high-school teachers, who reported on its utility for classroom adoption. For example, in 1979 Cynthia Merman, Zinn’s new editor, provided him with a list of revisions, before suggesting, “For high school students, you occasionally assume more historical knowledge than readers have.” Another reviewer for the press approached this topic with more positivity, suggesting that the book would appeal in a range of educational settings. A People’s History, the reviewer wrote, “has a better chance than any of the competition I have seen, if properly marketed, of making history real and alive, especially to introductory students.” They concluded, “Harper & Row has an excellent opportunity to do some social good at the same time as it advances its own interests.”
This was decidedly not an attempt to engage historiographical complexity, or even to court a middlebrow “general” readership. Instead, Merman and others at Harper understood that marketability and access to readers would come from framing the book as an all-new approach to U.S. history, representing the values of 1960s activism, and rendering them accessible to school-age readers as well as adults.
In one sense, this was a set of stylistic decisions based around Zinn’s talents as a writer: Harper viewed him as the right person to communicate a radical version of national history to young Americans. But it was also a commercial decision taken by staff at the company who were determined to find a niche for the book in the youth market. Both judgments tapped into a generational sensibility embraced by those involved in the radical politics of the 1960s that emphasized the radicalism of the young. Though linked to the greatly expanded number of Americans who came of age during the decade as part of the baby boom, this was not simply a demographic phenomenon. Instead, the decade’s “youth frame,” as the historian Holly V. Scott has argued, was one that told a larger story about the movements of the 1960s, emphasizing youth as a political identity, and underscoring “youthfulness” as a political choice.
The book also arrived at an auspicious moment in the history of school textbooks. After the scholarly and political upheavals of the 1960s, authors of history texts lost faith in traditional narratives, which highlighted the singularity of the American people and way of life over multiple centuries. However, many publishers were cautious about the commercial implications of folding narratives of racism, sexism, and conquest into their texts. They were worried that doing so would alienate readers and close profitable markets, especially in southern states. When A People’s History was first published in 1980, then, the market was ripe for a book that confidently advanced a bottom-up perspective, especially if it was written by a historian with high-profile links to multiple 1960s movements. Author and publisher did not expect the book to instantly sell millions of copies by gaining access to highly profitable high-school markets. Nonetheless, its publication demonstrates the afterlife of the “youth frame” as it was navigated by Zinn and his publishers in the post-1960s educational landscape, where the views of marginalized groups were not being effectively incorporated into the national narrative.
Although Zinn is often thought of as a popularizer of the historiography of the New Left, the politics of his work also shared deep-seated continuities with those of a preceding generation of American radicals. This generation was characterized by labor historians such as Philip S. Foner and Herbert Aptheker, who were both a little older than Zinn but who shared similar political and intellectual trajectories: All three were sons of European immigrants who had trained as historians at Columbia University while participating in radical politics. Much more closely involved with the Communist Party than Zinn, Foner and Aptheker sought to highlight radical and progressive traditions in U.S. history as a way of providing foundations for an American version of socialism.
In the 1960s and 1970s, this old-school approach to radical history was challenged by historians working in the traditions of the “new” social and labor history, who criticized Foner and Aptheker for being too simplistic and romantic in their portrayals of working people. Though Zinn was a contemporary of the new labor historians, his sensibility was closer to their predecessors, a mismatch which helps explain the criticism he faced from liberal and left-wing historians who reviewed A People’s History. A New York Times review written by Eric Foner (the nephew of Philip), for example, took the book to task for its “strangely circumscribed” portrayal of “anonymous Americans.” These people appeared only as “rebels or victims,” Foner suggested, before arguing that “less dramatic but more typical lives” had been ignored. Similarly, while he was supportive of the underlying impulse behind the idea of a “people’s history,” Michael Kammen sarcastically noted that Zinn mentioned Philip Foner more often than he did Thomas Jefferson. This resulted in a “simple-minded history … of Robin Hoods,” that made no effort to delve into the complexities of working-class existence.
While many scholars on the left took issue with Zinn’s emphases and methodologies, A People’s History garnered particularly disproportionate responses from conservative critics. For example, in a review for The American Scholar printed only months after the book’s publication, Oscar Handlin described Zinn’s scholarship as having the “deranged quality” of a “fairy tale.” He went on to suggest that “the book pays only casual regard to factual accuracy” and described its method as “tearing evidence out of context and distorting it.” For Zinn, this was a political rather than an intellectual attack. In a subsequent issue of the journal, he replied to Handlin, arguing that as a “proponent of the war in Vietnam and a supporter of Richard Nixon,” it was no surprise that the Harvard historian was critical of a radical work such as A People’s History. In making this case, Zinn defended his book against attack. But by claiming Handlin’s views were based on his political beliefs rather than professional judgment, he also went out of his way to court controversy.
While many scholars on the left took issue with Zinn’s emphases and methodologies, he garnered particularly disproportionate responses from conservative critics.
Four years later Zinn was targeted by the conservative organization Accuracy in Academia, foreshadowing today’s culture wars on college campuses. A spin-off from the larger and more visible Accuracy in Media, AIA took a piece of right-wing common sense — that university campuses were safe havens for “tenured radicals” seeking to remake the minds of their students — and built an advocacy network around it. The group embedded conservative activists in college classrooms to draw attention to prominent radical professors in the hope of discrediting them. The goal was then to liaise with other right-wing campus groups such as College Republicans and Young Americans for Freedom to launch campaigns to return “truth and balance to the classroom.”
Given his national prominence as a spokesman for radical political causes, it is hardly surprising that Zinn quickly became an object of AIA’s derision. In May 1985, his teaching style was publicly criticized, with a former student likening his classes to the “constant propaganda barrage” of a “police state.” As well as attacking Zinn’s teaching, conservative campus activists took aim at what they saw as the pernicious influence of A People’s History. At Virginia Tech, for example, the local branch of AIA argued that the book should be banned in the university’s history classes. “Zinn’s book ... portrays American heroes as villains,” their report argued, before criticizing the historian for interpreting the world “through Marxist eyes.” After making this case, AIA suggested that students write to their college president to complain about the use of the book: Its presence on reading lists meant that they were not presented with “the fundamental facts and interpretations of American history” as advertised by the course catalog.
Zinn responded to these attacks in kind, by defending not only his individual reputation, but also the radicalism for which he was a national spokesman. For example, in a 1985 speech, he denounced AIA for wanting “obedience” and “subservience” from young people, before arguing against another shibboleth of conservative educational thought: the idea of educational neutrality. “We who teach have a responsibility,” he suggested, before continuing:
“They talk about balance. The world is out of balance. The world is skewed and distorted in the direction of the people who have gone to war and wanted the new generations to go to war. And our problem is to restore that balance, and to teach about war.” Later, in a 1986 interview with a Boston University campus newspaper, Zinn suggested that his conservative critics had “confused my criticism of government with being anti-American.” He insisted that he was no such thing, and that A People’s History was, in its own way, an expression of patriotic radicalism.
Nonetheless, when we think of popular history in 2023, we are less likely to think about professional scholars such as Zinn, Lepore, and Kendi, than of figures who stand at a remove from the historical profession: non-academic authors, journalists, filmmakers, podcasters. This is hardly surprising when the history bestseller lists are populated by writers such as Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and Bill Bryson, and when work that attempts to bridge the gap between academe and the mainstream, such as the “1619 Project,” proves so controversial.
How, then, should the historical profession reassert the importance of its contributions to the world of popular history? One approach is to embrace controversy, which is what drove Zinn, and which he used to advance the cause of his discipline. When conservative critics lampooned his historical perspective, they only drew more attention to his famous book. In turn, Zinn was able use their criticisms to demonstrate the continued relevance of a radical, convention-defying approach to national history, which appeared as an iconic text in a decades-long debate between right and left, and thus as an archetypal popular history for a polarized America.
From the vantage point of 2023, we can appreciate A People’s History of the United States for what it was: a forthright, readable, passionate, and engaging piece of writing about the past that has subsequently inspired millions of readers to think differently about the United States. Zinn’s take on social history may be outdated, and his political biases clear for all to see, but for all his flaws he produced exactly the type of popular history the historical profession should seek to emulate.
This article is adapted from the book Popularizing the Past: Historians, Publishers, and Readers in Postwar America, published by the University of Chicago Press.