Monday, July 16, 2012

What is the Least Credible History Book in Print?

From HNN. Find out here.


Tom Van Dyke said...

The book edged out Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States by nine votes at the end of polling -- 650 votes versus 641.

Sounds fair---except the Zinn book is used in some of our schools. Where's the outrage from our professional historians? Could it have anything to do with Zinn's book leaning to the left instead of right?


Naum said...

What is wrong with Howard Zinn *A People's History of the United States*?

I still await an answer that even asserts that the content is fabricated or false.

Instead, all I hear is that Zinn does not provide a comprehensive overarching narrative and/or omits some accounts (accounts that typically are standard fare in sycophantic patriotic/nationalistic fawning) -- a charge that Zinn always was up front about, and pointed out that the "official" state historians also averred such biases.

A historian with a PhD from an Ivy league school, with commendation for his work, compared to a religious right hack?

Really? Seriously?

JMS said...

I agree with John Fea that, “the difference between Zinn and Barton is that Zinn's activism [and scholarship] was based upon the so-called "rules" of the historical profession, at least in terms of the gathering and use of evidence.” Although you can disagree with his scope or lack of “nuance” or “complexity,” Zinn never fabricated evidence or deliberately misled. “ Barton's work, on the other hand, has just too many blatant factual errors to be considered a work of history. And there, I think, is the difference. I would probably argue that Barton's book should not have been included on the list because it is not ‘history’." Unfortunately, Profesor Fea did not confine his remarks to this keen insight.

IMHO there was too much Zinn-bashing when he died in 2010. One cannot compare the voices and perspectives within U.S. history between 1970 and forty years later. The civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, Chicano, Red Power, feminist, labor, environmental and counter-culture movements exploded the boundaries of historical inquiry and scholarship, leading to many new sub-fields, journals and academic departments. Howard Zinn was one of many practitioners of the new social history “from the bottom up.”

Included here is a comment from someone I do not know, but agreed with, followed by my reply to him on the HNN site.
• JimmyPete
I must say I was disappointed when I read Zinn's book, it was simplistic. But it was published at a time when the popular history of the US was still loaded with myths, half truths, and omissions. At that time one would be hard pressed to learn the history of the labor movement, the Cherokee removal, black accomplishments in reconstruction. Few histories told the story of the use of Federal and State troops to put down strikes, or the backsliding of the post reconstruction South into disenfranchisement and segregation. The Red Scare of 1919 and McCarthy were invisible. While many academics and serious University courses didn't overlook these things [I will never forget reading The Strange Career of Jim Crow, my freshman year at Rutgers in 1964 which swept away so many preconceived notions of American racial history]. Zinn was an anecdote to much of this in popular culture. Now the book is no longer needed and rightfully criticized but is was enlightening for it's time\.
• jmshaw
JimmyPete - your point of view and college days mirror my own experiences (perhaps I am four years younger than you). While assigned Daniel Boorstin's dreadful "The Americans" in college U.S. History (I grew up on Quaker history, and knew his smear of them in the context of the French and Indian War was false and unsubstantiated by any reliable sources) in 1968 with the Vietnam War raging (Tet), the MLK and RFK assassinations and the Democratic convention fiasco in Chicago, encountering books in the library like Zinn's, Dee Brown's (not a historian) "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" and Vine Deloria Jr.'s (a political scientist) "Custer Died for Your Sins" (certainly a polemic) was a life-changing eye-opener that made me want to be a historian. Of course I can see Zinn's interpretive flaws, but he was not a fabricator of facts like Francis Parkman or Boorstin (Barton is not a historian; he is a fraud). Zinn was a working-class hero, adored by students and sold a lot of books (so many are spiteful and jealous of his success).

Jason Pappas said...

I’m a year or two younger than you, JMS, but I was never impressed with the replacement of the old myths by the new myths. Whatever Zinn achieved by fighting the old myths were sadly lost by his lack of balance and context as he and others constructed new myths.

I used to focus on economic history. Recent financial events, to which I’m an eyewitness, only heightens my distrust of historical recording and interpretation.

JMS said...

Jason - I'm sorry your to hear about your heightened "distrust of historical recording and interpretation" over the years. I have had the opposite experience. Maybe it's because I do Native American, political and religious history instead of economic history.

I do not think it is fair to accuse Zinn of creating new myths to debunk old ones. In the context of the 1960s & 1970s, he forced us to engage in critical thinking about how U.S. history had been constructed up until then.

Whether he was too leftist or not nuanced enough misses the point for me. Here's a quote from Zinn that sums up what he did for me as a young history major.

“We were not born critical of existing society. There was a moment in our lives when certain facts appeared before us, startled us, and then caused us to question beliefs that were strongly fixed in our consciousness-embedded there by years of family prejudices, orthodox schooling, imbibing of newspapers, radio, and television. This would seem to lead to a simple conclusion: that we all have an enormous responsibility to bring to the attention of others information they do not have, which has the potential of causing them to rethink long-held ideas.”