First of all I have to apologize. I actually finished my first two books in the first two weeks of January but haven’t managed to get my butt in gear and actually post about them. I started with Zinn’s seminal work because, first of all I’m an aspiring historian with with a definite leftward bent and this book is pretty much required reading for us. Additionally, I’ve been attempting to plug away at this tome for years and finally decided to restart it at the end of 2012 specifically planning to make it my first review for CBRV. I took it with me on the MetroLink where I would be forced to read it rather than spend an hour a day avoiding eye contact with my fellow passengers.
Originally published in 1980, People’s History was a revolution in historical writing. Rather than tell history from the perspective of the political and economic elites, he told it from the perspective of farmers, slaves, women and others whose voices had generally been overlooked in standard historical works. It was the beginning of what many neo-conservatives would decry as the ruination of American History. In their version, history is a straight line of upward progress from our first landing at Plymouth Rock until the present. America has always been in the right and on the off chance that it was in the wrong, it was only with the best of intentions. Zinn presents a “warts and all” version that shows us that even during some of our most celebrated moments, there were large groups of people who not only didn’t rejoice but despaired. Zinn insists he is not un-American, but merely wants us to have a realistic view of our own history so we can strive to be the country we should be:
“Our people are basically decent and caring, and our highest ideals are expressed in the Declaration of Independence, which says that all of us have an equal right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The history of our country, I point out in my book, is a striving, against corporate robber barons and war makers, to make those ideals a reality — and all of us, of whatever age, can find immense satisfaction in becoming part of that.”
My one regret in reading this book is that I did not read it sooner. By now Zinn’s alternate histories are pretty commonplace. So it came as no surprise to me that life for anyone poor, female, foreign or brown might have been pretty damned unpleasant throughout American History. I’m glad I read this book but it was not the mind-blowing experience it could have been had I read it right out of high school rather than less six months away from a BA in History. Furthermore, many contemporary historians have absorbed Zinn’s style to write a more balanced view of history. That is to say rather than just telling the tale from the perspective of the haves OR the have nots, a good history combines both to create the complex picture that is our past.