June 2002

Jen Crispin


A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present by Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn readily admits that his A People's History of the United States is a biased work. What is unique about his telling of history is the direction of the bias. This is a history biased in favor of the workers (mostly female) who died when a factory collapsed, and against the owners who knew the construction was faulty and did nothing. It is biased in favor of the Indians who rebelled, and against the Spaniards who slaughtered them for not bringing them enough gold. This is a history that does not gloss over the faults of presidents, just because a few good things happened while they were on watch. This is a history that gives credit to the people who organized, the petitions that were sent, and the sit-ins that were held.

There are a few points in the book where even I, whose often knee-jerk progressive/liberalism makes my fathers teeth grind, felt that the book was *too* biased. That the expectations Zinn appeared to have were entirely unreasonable for the time periods he was talking about. Upon reflection, these points only served to make clear just how biased our objective history textbooks really are. Columbus exterminating an entire culture was just a misunderstanding. Right. Just like all the Native Americans were savages and all the slaves were resigned to their lot. Zinn provides numerous and clear counter-examples to those historical claims that I have always doubted told the true story. But what is less comfortable, is the laying bare of the weaknesses of the men I would like to like. Adams, Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt. Men whom I may still choose to like, but with eyes less clouded than before.

Of course in 655 pages, it is difficult to cover comprehensively everything that happened in this country from when Columbus first set foot on some of the nearby islands to the present. One of my favorite things about this book is that it offers so much direction in the way of further reading. When many of the chapters left me thirsty for more, I didnt even have to turn to the extremely thorough bibliography in the back, many books which informed the times and which were inspired by the times were discussed in the text. Zinns work is not an ending place. One cannot read this book and know everything there is to know about the history that was not taught to you in school. This book is a starting place. An opening door to a new way of thinking. To the realization that ordinary people have changed the history of this country time and time again. And perhaps you can too.

A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present by Howard Zinn
Published by Harper Perennial
720 Pages