Zinn: A Radical American Vision
Davis Joyce’s Howard Zinn: A Radical American Vision daringly exemplifies nearly all the challenges a biographer can encounter. While there are any number of great historical biographies, biographies also tend to set an individual as the primary source of historical change and development rather than examining larger societal events. Joyce also takes on additional challenges, some of them inherent in his choice of subject. Howard Zinn is alive, making the biography potentially both premature and open for challenge by Zinn himself, should Joyce make any errors or write anything that he dislikes. Also, Zinn has already written a memoir, which will no doubt prompt some to question the need for such a biography.
Naturally, despite the challenges Joyce faced, many justifications for his book can be found. Zinn’s work has had a profound impact on my work, as it has on the work of Joyce, and I suspect on that of many other historians active since the publication of Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Zinn has done what few historians have—he has presented a complex and fascinating view of history that is readable even for people outside the academy. I cannot too strongly state my admiration for Zinn’s achievements, not only in A People’s History, but also in earlier works like his attack on American involvement in the Vietnam War, Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal. Zinn is truly a public intellectual of the highest stature, and he should have a biography.
Joyce clearly agrees that Zinn is both important and talented—indeed, the book is occasionally less a biography than a tribute to Zinn. Nearly every action that Zinn has taken, Joyce celebrates. The only real criticism Joyce seems to offer is that Zinn criticizes the American penal system too radically. Besides this, Joyce’s support for Zinn is unwavering to the point that it interferes with an analysis of Zinn’s life. At one point in Joyce’s narrative, for instance, historian James T. Patterson writes a critical review of Zinn’s 1973 Postwar America, complaining that Zinn failed to account for such subjects as “women, family life, marriage and divorce, juvenile delinquency, other demographic trends, ethnic relations, cultural trends, both immigration and internal migrations, the nature of life in northern cities and suburbs, and both class divisions within the black community and racial tensions within the civil rights movements” [p. 144]. Rather than addressing these serious charges, and using them to look at the limits of Zinn’s historical work, Joyce ignores these charges, leaving them without comment and reminding the reader that Patterson ends his review by stating that “to Zinn, it is not the past but the future that counts” [p. 144]. It is a sad missed opportunity to explore the friction between Zinn’s views of history and his colleagues’ views.
Surprisingly, considering that it is a biography written by a historian, Howard Zinn: A Radical American Vision also lacks proper historical analysis. Zinn, after all, lived (and lives) in extraordinary times, both in American history and, perhaps more important to Joyce’s work, in the historical profession. The historical context of a biography of Zinn would have to include the theoretical shifts and debates that have dominated the field of history over the last forty years. Zinn’s colleagues and sometime allies included both Staughton Lynd and Jesse Lemisch, yet—despite the fact that Zinn was part of the 1968 New University Conference where Lynd and Lemisch had their very public disagreement about the proper role of a radical scholar—we are told nothing of this debate. Nor is there any discussion, except for a passing gesture, of the rising tide of gender studies and post-structuralism, both of which came to occupy a central place in the literature while Zinn was still active in the university. Rather than following the models of great biographies like Steven Fraser’s Labor Will Rule, which uses the life of labor organizer Sidney Hillman as an opportunity to talk about the larger developments going on during Hillman’s lifetime, Joyce isolates his subject, failing to provide more than occasional cursory comments about the world outside Zinn’s life and writing.
Other contextual issues omitted from Joyce’s study are less “intellectual” but perhaps equally important. Zinn’s academic career, after all, was very much still going on when universities increasingly began to replace full-time employees with adjuncts, hired on a semester-by-semester basis. Joyce is one of the first historians who has tried to examine the academy in this period, and it is a sadly missed opportunity for him to examine how that process has affected the function of the academy. While Zinn’s own life may have been relatively unaffected by this process, Joyce could easily have used it as an entry to study these larger questions.
Rather than undertaking criticism of Zinn, providing more extensive comments on Zinn’s place within the academy or using the study as an entry into the times in which Zinn has lived, Joyce delivers extensive and occasionally redundant summaries of Zinn’s work. He presents the reader with a sixteen-page chapter-by-chapter summary of A People’s History of the United States, for instance, interspersed with frequent approving comments.
In addition to the summaries of Zinn’s books, Joyce includes summaries of the reviews of these works. All too often in these summaries, however, Joyce fails to describe—beyond giving the name and institutional affiliation of the reviewer, along with the publication—who these reviewers are, or why they were assigned to review Zinn’s work. Readers who are familiar with historiography will know something of Oscar Handlin and may have an inkling as to why Handlin would have been so critical of A People’s History, but I doubt that more than a handful of scholars would recognize names like R.H. Immerman and Mark Graber, both of whom have reviews that are summarized in Joyce’s biography, but neither of whom is described at all in Joyce’s biography. These reviewers have no doubt good reasons for their particular take on Zinn’s work, and understanding those reasons more clearly might allow us greater insight into his importance and influence.
work is admirable in many respects. There will never be enough books
about Zinn, and Joyce is certainly a fitting choice as biographer,
one who demonstrates a strong familiarity with Zinn’s life
and work. But this reader wishes Howard Zinn: A Radical American
Vision had been a more analytical work. To really explore Zinn,
one must be willing to disagree with him about substantive issues,
and—far more importantly—to examine exactly where he
fits into the larger historical context of the last half-century.