Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left

  • Martin Duberman
  • New
  • 384 pp.

A biography of Howard Zinn, a writer and activist who influenced the US left-wing agenda during the second half of the 20th century.

Reviewed by Louis Peck

For much of the latter half of the 20th century, historian Howard Zinn was a leading intellectual force of the American left.

The height of that influence came during the Vietnam War era when Zinn’s 1967 book, Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal, helped pull both mainstream politicians and the public in that direction. Nearly 50 years later, Zinn (who died in 2010) posthumously remains a popular author thanks in part to the impact of mass media. Sales of his People’s History of the United States, a force since its 1980 publication as an alternative to traditional treatments of that subject, spiked two decades later after mentions in the popular film Good Will Hunting and the long-running TV series, The Sopranos.

As it turns out, the star and co-writer of Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon, grew up next door to Zinn in Newton, Mass. As Martin Duberman writes in Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left, Zinn later joked that Damon “was paying me back for all the cookies we gave him when he was a kid.” But the Zinn residence at times also served a far more controversial role than cookie dispenser. Zinn provided safe harbor to one friend, Daniel Berrigan, when the latter was on the lam from the FBI in the early 1970s. That was about the same time he agreed to house a large number of documents illicitly collected by another friend, Daniel Ellsberg, which would surface as “The Pentagon Papers.”

Such intriguing episodes aside, Duberman has had to confront a problem similar to that encountered by other biographers of controversial figures: i.e., a massive effort by the subject to sanitize his or her personal archives.

“In the last years of his life, he destroyed nearly everything in his own archives that might have revealed his feelings and relationships. His clear determination was to pull the veil over the personal side of his life — his marriage, his parenting, his friendships, his affairs,” Duberman writes of Zinn, the son of poverty-stricken Jewish immigrants who grew up in a cold-water flat in Brooklyn.

The upshot is a book that is often less a biography of Zinn than an effort by Duberman — himself a left-wing historian and professor emeritus at the City University of New York — to use Zinn both as a focal point and foil for Duberman’s own analysis of the events of the past half-century.

The result is at times interesting. Duberman provides a valuable refresher course on the tensions within the civil rights movement of the 1960s, using as a literary launching pad Zinn’s involvement with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC): Zinn served as a member of that organization’s national advisory board while teaching in the Deep South at the height of the civil rights era. And interspersed into the latter part of the book is a lively account of how Zinn played an active role as a labor organizer as he focused on a smaller playing field — Boston University, where he taught from the mid-1960s through the late 1980s. For much of his last decade at the school, he butted heads with the school’s controversial president, John Silber — a bête noire of the left who passed away just weeks before the publication of Duberman’s book.

But Duberman’s historical overview can grow tiresome the closer it gets to the current day, with the author often rehashing many of the familiar criticisms that Presidents Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama have encountered from the left. At times, Duberman — in his clear contempt for the incremental approach of liberals — can strain historical credulity, such as when he dismisses the impact of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in a sentence fragment.

Since, as Duberman notes, the once-prolific Zinn wrote with less and less frequency in the two decades leading up to his death at 87, it becomes increasingly difficult as the book proceeds to discern whether we are reading Zinn’s or Duberman’s take on the events of the time. When it comes to personal relationships, Duberman has made an effort to compensate for Zinn’s limited archives by interviewing family and acquaintances. But he nonetheless struggles to resolve some of the seeming contradictions between the public and private Zinn.

For example, an allegation that Zinn made unwanted advances toward a female student while teaching at Atlanta’s Spelman College in the late 1950s and early 1960s is discussed at length but left hanging. Zinn at the time denied the allegation, and there are suggestions it may have been inflated by the then-president of Spelman College, Albert Manley, who was looking to get rid of Zinn over academic and political differences.  “What the ‘incident’ actually consisted of,” writes Duberman, “depended on who told you what and who you believed.” Whether Duberman made an effort to interview the student involved — whom he does not name but says had won a coveted scholarship — is not apparent from the text or accompanying notes.

Nor does Duberman reveal until several chapters later the potentially relevant information that Zinn — in a confession to his wife Roslyn (Roz) in the early 1970s — admitted to a series of affairs. Their marriage, which spanned more than 60 years, survived, despite what Duberman describes as several periods of discontent and unhappiness on Roz’s part throughout the union. Duberman, while launching into a rather dispassionate discourse on the institution of marriage and its limits, avoids the question of whether Zinn — not unlike other prominent figures — had fallen short in his responsibilities to those closest to him, even as he devoted his energies to society’s shortfalls.

“To concentrate on the public events of a given life is to run the risk of a one-dimensional portrait,” Duberman writes at the outset of the book. “And … if one agrees with the subject’s political perspective (as I mostly do with Howard’s) there’s the further risk of presenting him as a candidate for sainthood rather than a fallible human being.”

These sentiments do not stop Duberman from offering specific criticisms of Zinn’s many published works, along with frequently sharp critiques of Zinn’s overall methods of research and analysis. Reflecting the debate among historians — as well as journalists — about whether the writing of either history or journalism can ever be truly objective, Duberman laudably devotes significant space to discussing the extent to which a historian’s personal experience can or should color his or her analysis.

In the end, Duberman seems to answer this question, if indirectly, in the affirmative. Just as Zinn’s boyhood of growing up in dire poverty and his experiences in the segregated South of the late 1950s and early 1960s had affected his view of the currents of history, so does Duberman’s status as an openly gay man who founded an academic center for gay and lesbian studies.

“His sense that issues relating to race and class remained the essential ones can’t be contradicted as somehow wrong,” Duberman writes of Zinn. “But his unchanging focus did mean that Howard had, by the mid-1970s, little left to add by way of commentary that was fresh,” he adds, repeatedly jabbing at Zinn for overlooking women’s and gay issues in his writing.

What Duberman momentarily overlooks in that brief assessment is the overall body of work that Zinn produced, and whose significance Duberman serves to underscore through his lengthy analysis of it. Zinn’s legacy includes three plays in addition to a dozen long and short volumes, taking on topics ranging from race relations in the pre-civil rights South to the justification for civil disobedience to the writing and interpretation of history.

Like Duberman’s lengthy effort to profile him, Zinn’s own writing was often uneven. But the one-time World War II bombardier — who ultimately came to believe that no war was justified — helped shape the left-wing agenda throughout the latter half of the 20th century, in both his actions and his writing. That’s what makes Duberman’s book worthwhile reading.

Louis Peck has been a Washington-based reporter and editor for more than three decades. Since 2011, he has been a member of the faculty of Boston University’s Washington Journalism Program.


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