Friday, January 29, 2010

The People's Historian: Howard Zinn 1922-2010

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that in America we treat Labor History as a kind of pornography, in the sense that it isn't really considered "proper" reading material, and there's something questionable about anyone who takes an interest in it.

My first encounter with Labor History was reading about the Anarchist Harmarket Martyrs in high school. When I discovered a big fat book on "The Haymarket Affair" (I think that was the title, I cannot remember the author!) in the school library, it called out to me with the siren song of forbidden knowledge. The more I read, the more thrilled I became and the more I could hardly believe what I had discovered!

And so when Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States came out (after I had graduated from college), that book was not a revelation to me. But it's popular reception was. Fidel Castro once quipped, "It is not enough for the truth to be true. The truth must also be told." But even that is not enough. The truth must be told well.

There are in fact many great labor historians and some of them have been very good writers. Samuel Yellen is one that particularly comes to mind. Philip Foner was the Grand-Master of the Craft in America, but he was never famous for his ability to thrill the reader. But it was not until Howard Zinn came along that we had someone who managed to write books that tell about the struggles of the working class, but that were also books young people would excitedly praise and lend to each other, like a new favorite album (er, CD, er, I mean pirated mp3 download).

Here's another nice, and much more thorough, appreciation by Paul Street over at Z Magazine: Howard Zinn: The People's Historian.

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