I can still remember the first time I got my hands on a copy of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. History had been one of my minors in college, but the texts had all been so dry and boring, destined to spend their lives on some dusty library shelf. But Zinn's book was different. It was readable, for one thing, free of academic jargon and narratively driven. (Zinn had put the 'story' back in 'history.') What really set the book apart, though, was Zinn's bottom's-up approach. This was a history book about people who usually got left out of history books or who were shunted off to the margins ' Native Americans, immigrants, the working class. There were events I'd never heard about: Bacon's Rebellion, the Ludlow Massacre. And there were people I'd heard about but had never combined into a historical continuum: Daniel Shays, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Black Hawk, John Brown, Emma Goldman, Eugene Debbs, Mother Jones. Having gotten my fill of institutional history, I reveled in a book that seemed by the people, for the people and of the people.
Zinn became famous as a result of A People's History ' what passes for fame in leftwing circles, anyway. And now he's been enshrined in a documentary by Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller called Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train. The title is taken from Zinn's 1994 memoir, and although the documentary has a valedictory feeling, it's hard to imagine this octogenarian rabblerouser going gentle into that good night, despite his gentle demeanor. Zinn has been making his views known ever since he was a teenager organizing his fellow longshoremen in New York, and through it all he's had a Zelig-like knack for showing up wherever history's being made. He was a bombardier during World War II and is still haunted by a mission in which he dropped 'jellied gasoline,' later known as napalm, on a French village where German soldiers were sitting out the end of the war. He was a history professor at Atlanta's all-black Spelman College just as the civil rights movement was catching fire. And he traveled to Hanoi during the Vietnam War, overseeing the release of three POWS.
Ellis and Mueller include the wonderful detail that when Zinn and his leftist colleagues were meeting with North Vietnamese military officials, an exchange of songs was proposed, Zinn representing 'our' side with a rousing rendition of 'America the Beautiful.' The documentary makes an effort to show us the private man behind the public man; we meet Zinn's wife, Roz, and we're allowed into his book-lined study. But Zinn may be one of those people for whom the public and the private are inextricably meshed. That would explain the ease he projects no matter who ' or how many people ' he's speaking to at the time. He used to call himself 'Noam Chomsky's opening act,' having introduced the left's leading intellectual on so many occasions. But Chomsky, for whatever reasons, has the personal warmth of a radish,whereas Zinn, with his shock of gray hair and toothy smile, seems much more approachable, more avuncular. Gentle yet firm, brainy yet accessible, he's the professor we all wish we'd had. And now, thanks to his very own documentary, he's ours for the asking.