Remembering Revolutionary Writer Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn's iconic book, A People's History of the United States, transformed the way many Americans view history by focusing on the voices that other historians had long ignored. The ground-breaking writer died of a heart attack Wednesday. Social historian Joseph Boskin, a long-time friend and colleague of Zinn's, reflects on Howard Zinn's work, life and legacy.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Political activist, author and educator Howard Zinn died yesterday of a heart attack at the age of 87. He will be best remembered for his seminal book "The People's History of the United States," which challenged mainstream accounts of battles and presidents and captains of industry and gave voice to workers, American-Indians and the dispossessed.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

Mr. HOWARD ZINN (Author, "The People's History of the United States"): Probably the most important thing anybody can learn when they're just beginning to think about history is that history is very subjective, history is always opinionated. It's never objective, it's never neutral. Because when you think about it, all the history that's presented to you is a selection made by the historian out of an enormous amount of data. The historian decides for you what is important and puts that down in the history book. And what the historian thinks is important may not be important to you.

CONAN: Howard Zinn in an interview with Tavis Smiley on NPR in 2003. So what have you learned from Howard Zinn? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now is Joseph Boskin, emeritus professor of American social history at Boston University, a long-time friend and colleague of Howard Zinn. He's with us from member station WBUR in Boston.

Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Professor JOSEPH BOSKIN (Boston University): Good to be here.

CONAN: And much is being written about Howard Zinn's legacy - what do you see as his legacy?

Prof. BOSKIN: He basically gave us a view and a vision of history that have long have been neglected. Basically, it was invisible. He made it visible.

CONAN: And how would you encapsulate that view? Some people would just say a leftist view.

Prof. BOSKIN: Well, I - it might be called that, but that that does it a disservice. A lot of history has been written by those who make decisions because they are in power, and so the history of presidents and cabinets and people who basically have the degree and the ability to manipulate both people and events. What Howard was concerned with, as others are, as a matter of fact, were history from the bottom up, meaning people who are disfranchised, who are alienated, who were the working classes.

Mainly historians have basically ignored them over the years, this included minority groups like blacks and women and gays and so on. And Howard wanted to know what history would look like if - from their point of view. And so his "People's History of the United States" is a compendium of their behavior and their actions over the centuries.

CONAN: Here are some emails. This is from Richard in St. Louis: Howard Zinn was one of the first historians who changed the focus away from great men and wars to how the average citizens affected and was affected by history. He will be missed. But his students will carry on.

And this from Lynn in Tampa: Howard Zinn was an inspiration to me. His viewpoints on history were eye-opening and insightful. He showed unvarnished parts of our history and always spoke truth to power. He was part of our nation's conscience that will be sorely be missed. And as an academic advisor to the future teachers, I always recommend Zinn to my students, so they can open their minds to diverse viewpoints.

And Joseph, I have to ask you ask, Joseph Boskin, he is did it surprise him the success of his "People's History of the United States"? It was originally published, I think, 5,000 volumes and it continues to sell to this day.

Prof. BOSKIN: He was surprised to the point of shocked.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. BOSKIN: But (unintelligible) fortuitous circumstances went into it. It was an original, to begin with. It quickly caught on with students and they were the ones who basically appealled to state boards and college boards to adopt it. So it was like a movie that is not much publicized, but by word of mouth it spreads. And that indicated that it was really resonating in people's minds. Can I read you something, since you just read from other people?

CONAN: Sure.

Prof. BOSKIN: This came through an email to me this morning, as a matter of fact. This is a student who is in her 40s. She's here at the university. She holds a key position in the biomedical ethics division. I will not give you her name because she may be too embarrassed. But this is a letter that she wrote to me that talks to the very point you are making.

She starts off by saying: Good morning, Professor Boskin. I am very sorry for the loss of your friend, Howard Zinn. I've always loved history, and for my birthday several years ago, a friend gave me his book, "The People's History," and to say that I have loved that book would be a gross understatement. I clung to it like a Baptist clings to a Bible.

CONAN: Hmm.

Prof. BOSKIN: This book is one of the reasons I chose to go back to school and the main reason why I'm a history major. You dont know what you dont know until someone tells you. I've always hoped to bump into Professor Zinn on campus and whip out a well-worn copy of this book and ask him for an autograph. I'm sorry I never got to meet him.

CONAN: Hmm. And lets see if we can get a caller on the line. This is Jane, Jane with us from Jenison in Michigan.

JANE (Caller): Yes, thanks for taking my call, Neal.

CONAN: Sure.

JANE: I just want to - my daughter called me and said Howard Zinn had died. I just always thought that when he dies, were losing a warrior. I think what I have learned from him is that we do need to stand up and we need to fight for the underdog. And because hes always been willing to do it, and now he is gone, the rest of us of all generations need to stand up and carry on his legacy.

CONAN: Jane, thanks very much for the call. And it is unquestioned, I think, Joseph Boskin, that his legacy - his work, that book in particular, is going to be continued to be taught.

Prof. BOSKIN: Oh, without question. I mean, it has staying power, or as they say in the (unintelligible), it has legs. It will actually go down through the generations. Its one of the few books in history that I think will become a classic.

CONAN: Yet many historians - perhaps with some jealousy, nevertheless -criticized Zinn and "The Peoples History" as a polemic, even as ahistorical.

Prof. BOSKIN: Well, it has received, I think, criticism, and sometimes justifiably, as a matter of fact. I mean, Howard was, to a certain extent, a synthesizer. He sometimes did not do additional(ph) research that historians prefer. But he was trying to do is capture another point of view. And for that, I think, he deserves applause and accolades.

To the criticism, I think that it is valid. I think that it's calling upon future historians to look into his book, to revise and correct where they think it has to be. But we start off at the basic level of his approach and his view and his vision.

CONAN: We also would like just for a moment to remember him as a man. I never had the chance to meet him. I did talk to him a few times, and he was a delightful interview. He was your friend. What was he like?

Prof. BOSKIN: He was one of the few democratic people I truly know. Thats what with a small d. I mean, his interest cut across people, institutions and various levels of society. And he had no pretentions whatsoever, with a wonderful sense of humor. My image of Howard is walking across campus with crumpled clothes, wearing a sweater. I swear, it was the same sweater.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. BOSKIN: As a matter of fact, and humming gently and eating a banana.

CONAN: Joseph Boskin, thank you for your time today. And were sorry for your loss.

Prof. BOSKIN: Thank you very much for having me here.

CONAN: Joseph Boskin, emeritus professor of American social history at Boston University. He joined us today from member station WBUR in Boston to remember his friend Howard Zinn.

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