I have long wanted to read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States; in fact, I think I’ve owned my copy for at least a decade. Many things kept me from picking it up, from its length to the fact that it’s a general history book (I usually read only targeted histories, such as histories of a particular war or a specific topic, but less often something that covers a nation’s or people’s entire history). I also worried, based on the excerpts I’d already read plus reviews from friends, that the book would make me terribly sad and incredibly enraged. As it turns out, I wasn’t giving that premonition enough credit.
Howard Zinn’s A People’s History is, by the author’s own admission, a biased view, as all views are. It is, however, a more honest one, in my opinion, because it considers the lived experiences of the masses, not the few (something quite different from most histories) and because it recounts so much of what is traditionally left out of popular and educational history texts. Zinn presents us with major and minor historical events, movements, figures, and places as it would have been viewed by those most affected and with an attempt at creating immediate and longitudinal contexts. Even though I couldn’t read more than a chapter at a time without risking personal injury due to rising blood pressure and lockjaw, I felt like I was able to speed through the text, to comprehend and digest it well, and to gain an even deeper appreciation for my already skeptical view of the adage, “American exceptionalism.”
The history is bound to make an objective and conscientious reader feel monumentally disappointed in the American experiment, from its pre-colonial founding to the Clinton administration. When modern day conservatives rave about “woke” culture and anti-American sentiment (read: addressing cisgender white heterosexual privilege), it’s not hard to understand why a book like this one might frighten them (and why the less intellectually honest or less equipped might want to “ban” it). Ideas can be disruptive, and disruption can feel unsettling, even dangerous.
I too experienced this feeling while reading A People’s History. Many figures I have long admired are now under re-assessment, which is a painful but not unnecessary process. I think it would be easy to finish this one and walk away utterly disillusioned by the power and corruption, and great deception, of the American government and its economic system. And while there’s every reason to be angered by much, Zinn also highlights just how often the people have stepped in to say when enough was enough, to demand and create change, and to stand together and support one another in the most impossible of times and under the most extraordinary of pressures and disadvantages.
I won’t say A People’s History is uplifting or even very promising, because it’s not, but I think that if one is of a mind—or heart—to seek the good in a perpetually bad system and to believe that, ultimately, power really will rest in the people, then it’s enough that this book is edifying, challenging, and actionable. They call this “revisionist” history, but as I tell my students, revision is what we do when we have new information and when we have strengthened our ability to process that information. When we revise thoughtfully, we almost always produce something better.
If you’re an American and haven’t yet read Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, I hope you will do so. I’m going to list some other recommendations below.
This one is Book 3 for my 2022 TBR Pile Challenge.
Recommendations for Similar Reading: