Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left
New York: New Press, 2012
Review by Alan Wieder
Howard Zinn was 87 when he died in 2010. He was an activist, writer, and teacher and these three aspects of his life interacted seamlessly as he fought for social justice in the United States. Martin Duberman has written a biography of Zinn, Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left. Duberman, like Zinn, is an activist, writer, and teacher – he speaks to the two men’s similarities in his introduction:
We held common convictions on a wide range of public issues. Our views coincided about the justice of the black struggle and the injustice of the war in Vietnam. We deplored the entrenched and usually unacknowledged class divisions in this country, the growing monopoly of wealth in the hands of a few, and the arrogance and destruction of US foreign policy.
Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left by Martin Duberman is a chronological portrait of Zinn’s life. As I read the book I couldn’t shake something I learned in an early historiography class:
Beware of biographical caveats
In the introduction besides writing of the correspondence of his and Howard’s views of the world, Duberman notes that Zinn shredded his personal papers making it difficult to combine the political and personal in his portrayal of Howard Zinn’s life. In a February 2010 reading on this program after Zinn died, Ole Mole Variety Hour’s Tom Becker explained that for Zinn, the political was personal and the personal was political. Unfortunately, in the biography, that is told but not shown.
Duberman, now 82 years old, has published numerous books, articles, and plays including Paul Robeson: A Biography. He is most well known for his activism and eight books on LGBT rights. He has received numerous awards and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography.
Martin Duberman’s accomplishments and the accolades for his work are exceptional. Yet, Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left is a disappointing book. It is disappointing not because Zinn didn’t leave personal papers, but rather because Martin Duberman used neither Howard’s voice nor those of his family, comrades, colleagues, friends and critics. We do not get a good sense of the depth or breadth of Howard Zinn. Duberman acknowledges doing ten interviews – five with family and five with friends. There were probably more but there are almost no quotes as Duberman tells, rather than shows, Howard Zinn’s life.
So while there are some insights, usually from books by Howard that many of us have read, there are pages and pages of what might be generously called context that do not connect directly to Howard’s life – some examples.
Writing on Howard’s early life, there is a great paragraph, the gist of which was written in Zinn’s The Southern Mystique, where Howard confronts racism while in the military. In the biography, the event, however, is situated within pages of context that do little to portray Howard Zinn.
It is the same for the next 100 pages that cover Howard Zinn’s first academic appointment at Spellman College and the Civil Rights Movement. The Spellman chapter covers Howard helping to politicize students but it is too often a list of events – some about Howard, some about the college, and some about the south and racism without showing Howard as a human participant.
There are snippets, however. Amidst the Spellman chapter Howard’s thinking on Malcolm X, black power, and SNCC do come alive as do some sit-in stories in the chapter on the Civil Rights Movement. Pages and pages are devoted to Howard’s firing, and President Manley of Spellman’s accusations of sexual misconduct will hit the novice reader quite hard. That of course raises numerous questions about biographical methodology that are beyond the scope of this short review.
We are teased by mention of Howard’s interactions with James Baldwin & Ella Baker and his work on The Freedom Summer – but I for one found myself asking for more – give it life.
Duberman writes on the Viet Nam war & Howard’s 1967 book Viet Nam: The Logic of Withdrawal. We learn about Howard’s critique of the war and he is humanized with a strong quote from his daughter Myla. We learn of his trips to Hanoi and Paris and his comrades David Dellinger, Daniel Berrigan, and Daniel Ellsberg, but again, I was yearning to know more of the relationships between the people as well as their relationships within the context of their collective missions.
There is a chapter called Writing History that speaks to Howard within his academic discipline and includes some of his battles with historians like Eugene Genovese. Much of the chapter, actually too much, includes Duberman’s analysis of Howard’s scholarship – I kept writing ‘no life’ in the margins.
Also covered is Zinn’s ongoing battle with Boston University’s president, John Silber and the writing of Howard’s most famous book, A Peoples’ History of the United States. Duberman tells the well-known story about sales of the book surging after Matt Damon mentioned it in his film Good Will Hunting, and then again when it was shown on the HBO series, The Sopranos.
Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left actually comes more to life in its portrayal of the last three decades of Howard’s life. One hunch is that Duberman had great conversations with Anthony Arnove who Howard worked with closely late in his life? Martin Duberman lauds A Peoples’ History as well as earlier books and honors the many progressive projects that Howard Zinn’s work has launched – (for example the Zinn Education Project at zinnedproject.org). He concludes by saying:
What will most certainly come down to future generations is Howard’s humanity, his exemplary concern for the plight of others, a concern free of condescension or self-importance. Howard always stayed in character – and that character remained centered on a capacious solidarity with the least fortunate.
While I think that people can learn about Howard Zinn in Martin Duberman’s book, Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left, A Peoples’ History of the United States & Howard’s memoir like book, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, would be higher on my list.