I was deeply saddened to see on the front page of The Huffington Post that Howard Zinn passed away today at 87. I know that I am not alone among my colleagues in saying that Howard Zinn is the reason I became a historian.
Back in the late-1980s and early-1990s when I was a volunteer writer for a nuclear freeze news monthly in Santa Cruz, California, I used to send Howard my articles seeking his praise and encouragement. He was always so generous and gracious and he took the time to write to me and comment on my little obscure articles. I’ve kept one of his letters to me in a dog-eared copy of A People’s History on my bookshelf. It’s from April 21, 1991, and Howard was commenting on an article I sent him about the Persian Gulf war.
“Your article,” he wrote in a little note batted out on a manual typewriter, “‘An Unsanitized Look at the War’ is one of the very best I have read on the events in the Gulf — vivid, passionate, factual, and written with admirable clarity. It is a powerful indictment of the war and it pulls together the basic facts about the violence we have done to human beings in that war. Thanks for sending it to me. Best, Howard Zinn”
That single letter from Howard inspired me to carry on what I was doing more so than any other correspondence or comments I’ve ever received from any quarter.
Later, when I was accepted at Cornell to pursue a doctorate in history I wrote Howard seeking his advice. I’ll never forgot what he said and it served me well. He said to keep the “nitpickers and super-scholars” off my Ph.D. committee and to choose a dissertation topic that is “doable.” I followed his advice. Some years later I met him at a reception at Cornell and the first words that came out of his mouth after I introduced myself were: “Oh, yes, you wrote some wonderful articles, I hope you’re still writing.” He was so kind to me and really gave me the sense that he valued my work as a historian and commentator on current events.
I saw Howard speak in Ithaca and in Santa Cruz and his talks were always so emotionally powerful and sensitive to human suffering and injustice. But he could also be hilariously funny, with a comedian’s sense of timing. And he had the most developed sense of irony — and the ability to convey irony — of anyone I’ve ever seen or read. That quality alone made him my all-time favorite historian. His commitment to social activism and keeping the record straight when it came to American history with all its blemishes was truly extraordinary. His experiences with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee at Spellman College in the early 1960s and his seminal work on the civil rights movement, The New Abolitionists, gave him a first-hand grasp of the engine of historical change. His 1968 trip to Hanoi with another mentor I hold dear, Father Daniel Berrigan, gave him the direct experience of being under the aerial bombardment from his own country. He also understood what it was like to participate in war as a bombardier in World War Two and to work with dirty hands for a very low wage — two qualities often lacking in academic historians.
In our more recent email correspondence he was just as gracious and generous and thoughtful as he had been since before I was even a grad student. After I started writing for The Huffington Post I would periodically receive some pretty hateful emails. I asked Howard how he deals with that kind of thing and this was his response (January 4, 2008):
“Joe, I am an experienced recipient of such mail. I ignore it . To reply is to invite a round robin of stupidity. There are some letters which are critical and where you feel you might have something to teach that person (I received something like that recently from a GI angry at my lack of patriotism, and I responded and he responded and each time he came down more from his initial anger.) But some people are obviously incorrigible nuts and don’t deserve a response.”
Howard inspired me my entire adult life more so than any other single scholar or mentor. His writing ability always keeps me in awe as I often return to many of his works. I’ve read them all and re-read many. In fact, A People’s History has been the unofficial background text for every history course I’ve ever taught. Few people have Howard’s profound sense of social justice and a deep understanding of the human forces at work in making history.
Today is my birthday and I was looking forward to watching President Obama’s State of the Union Address tonight. Hearing the news today of Howard’s death was quite a blow. He was my teacher and mentor, the perfect role model of the compassionate citizen activist historian journalist. I was happy when I received my copy of The Nation in the mail yesterday and saw that he had penned a short comment on Obama’s first year in office. I thought to myself I’m glad that Howard is alive and well. I haven’t heard from him since his wife died not too long ago. I’ve kind of dreaded this day because when people like Howard go there’s really nobody to replace them. Certainly none of the historians from my generation I’ve encountered in my life.
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