Howard Zinn - Biography

Few books have been more rigorously studied, discussed, debated, embraced, shunned, lauded and critiqued that Howard Zinn’s magnum opus, A People’s History of the United States. For decades, Zinn (August 24, 1922 — January 27, 2010) was one of this nation’s leading voices and brightest intellects, and he excelled as a wonderfully diverse mind and a polymath of the highest order. Zinn was a political scientist, historian, activist, educator, playwright, and all-around intellectual; his politics were firmly in the anarchic tradition, and he proudly counted himself as a libertarian socialist. Yet while Zinn authored nearly two-dozen books, his name will forever be associated with A People’s History.  Since its controversial publication in 1980, it has become required reading in nearly all liberal arts curricula, and despite its controversial take on US history, it has even worked its way onto high school reading lists (north of the Ohio River, at least). Essentially, it is a boldly far-reaching and intrinsically brave attempt to re-tell the story of the United States from the perspective of those groups, races, communities and stalwart individuals whose backs carried the weight of the ambitions — and greed — of others. Zinn re-posits much of what our childhood textbooks intoned about our collective national mythologies, instead seeking to examine history through the eyes and efforts of labor organizations, Native Americans, African American slaves, disenfranchised women, and many others for whom the American Dream was at best a waking illusion and at worst, a harrowing nightmare. It’s an exhaustive work, and an exhausting read, but within the broad and bleak confines of its massive girth (nearly 800 pages), Zinn puts forth a definitive argument against the method and means of US imperialism and capitalism gone wild.


Fortunately, in addition to his extensive bibliography, Howard Zinn has a discography that has slowly yet systematically expanded in the last few decades. Zinn found a peculiar ally and patron in punk-rock publisher and former Dead Kennedys vocalist Jello Biafra. Through his Alternative Tentacles record label, Biafra has published several recordings featuring Zinn. Heroes and Martyrs (2001 Alternative Tentacles/Revolver) is a double disk set that documents a series of lectures in which Zinn re-contextualizes the idealistic lives of some of history’s most notorious anarchists, Emma Goldman and Sacco & Vanzetti. Sure, Zinn isn’t the most vivacious public speaker (although he’s certainly not as dismally soporific as his friend and colleague Noam Chomsky), but these are compelling recordings. Stories Hollywood Never Tells (2001 Alternative Tentacles) is an extended “pitch” by Zinn, as he suggests the true stories that Tinseltown should share with the masses; Artists in a Time of War (2002 Alternative Tentacles) analyzes belligerent militarism and resolute pacifism in the wake of 9/11; in Come September (2002 Alternative Tentacles), Zinn introduces a discussion with novelist Arundhati Roy, with whom he shares an extreme disenchantment regarding the human cost of globalization.


Several of these titles are collected in a sprawling, 6xCD set, The People’s History Project, Volume 1 (2004 Alternative Tentacles), and the cumulative impact is a pronounced and crucial addition to Howard Zinn’s canon of printed literature. Since Zinn’s unfortunate death, more material has surfaced, including War and Civil Disobedience (2010 Trade Root Music Group). It’s a sturdy effort by Zinn to explicate, decipher and illuminate the veiled structures of power and the mechanisms of institutionalized deceit that prohibit individuals from fully realizing a truly democratic society. It’s heady stuff, and exhilarating. Through various media, Howard Zinn’s powerful worldview and compelling zeal continue to spread, an intellectual contagion infecting open and inquiring minds wherever discourse and justice are cherished.





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