History News Network has a poll up right now asking readers to vote for the least credible history book in print. I’ve read two of the five: Zinn’s People History and Gavin Menzies’ 1421. The latter is the worst book I’ve ever read. It would be laughable if people didn’t actually cite it as evidence that the Chinese discovered America in 1421. If I read O’Reilly’s book on Abraham Lincoln, maybe that’d compete for the title of worst book I’ve read, but then I don’t think that’s a worthy competition.
Much more problematic is the inclusion of Zinn. It’s clearly a sop to conservative readers and a way to make HNN look nice and centrist. It insults the man to include his book here with such disasters as 1421. Zinn’s book pointed out a lot of truths to a lot of people and helped shape a generation interested in looking at history as something other than politicians and battles, who wanted a history that reflected their lived experiences.
That said, A People’s History is old and out of date. While it might have been revelatory in 1980, its conclusions are pretty ho-hum today. Historians have explored all of the questions Zinn brought up in tremendous detail, and were doing so when he published the book. Yet it still has value because it continues to be the first read for the newly minted young progressive who wants to know some different stories about the past. In fact, those young people may well have heard those stories before, possibly in high school, quite likely in college, but they probably didn’t pay attention in their Intro to US History course.
HNN cites three experts to slight Zinn:
A People’s History is bad history, albeit gilded with virtuous intentions. Zinn reduces the past to a Manichean fable and makes no serious attempt to address the biggest question a leftist can ask about U.S. history: why have most Americans accepted the legitimacy of the capitalist republic in which they live?
–Michael Kazin, professor of history, Georgetown University [from Dissent]
By convincing several generations of Americans that leadership does not matter and that all beneficial change comes from the bottom, it has played a significant role in the destruction of American liberalism.
–David Kaiser, William B. Pratt Chair of Military History, Naval War College
It is a synthesis of the radical and revisionist historiography of the past decade. … Not only does the book read like a scissors and paste-pot job, but even less attractive, so much attention to historians, historiography and historical polemic leaves precious little space for the substance of history
–Michael Kammen, Newton C. Farr Professor of American History and Culture (emeritus), Cornell University [from the Washington Post]
Kazin and Kammen get to the fundamental problems of Zinn. He really doesn’t deal with the big question of why most Americans accept capitalism, there’s not much nuance, and it does feel thrown together. The additions for later editions are even more slapdash.
Kaiser’s criticism however is completely laughable, but all too typical coming from a certain kind of military historian. Yes, that single radical historian who focused on social movements rather than the military was so powerful that he alone played a major role in the decline of American liberalism! The massive failures of political and military leadership during the Vietnam War clearly had very little to do with it!! The unwillingness of the left to play along with mainstream Democratic politics is clear evidence of Kaiser’s point–just look at the AFL-CIO!
As I’ve said before, Zinn is an OK place to start if you are interested in the past but it’s not a particularly good book and I wouldn’t actually recommend it to anyone. What we really need is a new, beautifully-written synthesis of a progressive American history to update and replace the old standard, something that would avoid Zinn’s Manichean view of the world and deal with the questions he didn’t want to try and answer.