Day after Zinn’s death, a look at book’s impact

By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / January 29, 2010

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It’s one of the best-selling history books, a controversial tome that ignited the political consciousness of generations of young people. Taught in high schools across the nation and in some college survey courses, Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States’’ offers an activist’s perspective on history, from the founding of America to the war on terrorism.

A day after Zinn’s death Wednesday at age 87, local scholars, high school history teachers, and Zinn’s former students credited the revolutionary book with legitimizing to the greater public the experiences of people whose stories previously had not been told, including women, laborers, Native Americans, and other minorities.

“Howard’s book really causes us to recognize the darker side of American history, of slavery and the oppression of labor movements,’’ said William Keylor, a history professor at Boston University, where Zinn taught political science for more than two decades. “It really is a corrective to the standard orthodox story of America.’’

Zinn looked at American history from the perspective of the underprivileged, the oppressed, those left out of the standard narrative, Keylor said; he was someone who saw history as focusing too much on the political and socioeconomic elite.

Like many historians, though, Keylor said he does not fully ascribe to Zinn’s overly critical interpretation of history.

“It certainly does not present a kind of balanced evenhanded interpretation of American history, because he’s really trying to focus on the negative side,’’ he said. “His scholarship was part of his activism.’’

Educators say the point of view and moral fervor of the book helps to capture the attention of high school students, many of whom had been fed a sanitized version of American history in their primary school years.

“Teachers would assign that, and it would open kids’ eyes,’’ said Alex Keyssar, a history and social policy professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

“He was offering this durable counter-narrative of American history that got read in all sorts of quarters.’’

The book made an appearance in the movie “Good Will Hunting,’’ when Matt Damon’s character gave a plug to Zinn, Damon’s longtime family friend.

It is a scene that Elizabeth Kline, who was a student of Zinn’s at BU in the mid-1960s, relishes.

“Howard Zinn was really the person who brought the real world into education,’’ said Kline, who lives in Cambridge. “He has changed my life.’’

Tracy Jan can be reached at