Debunking Howard Zinn by Mary Grabar—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com.

Mary Grabar’s book Debunking Howard Zinn explores the biographical, political, and historiographical aspects of Zinn’s life and writing to provide a greater context for understanding Zinn’s writing and advocacy for historical revisionism. Beginning with a biographical chapter examining Zinn’s early socialist convictions and engagement with the Communist Party of America, Grabar proceeds through each chapter of The People’s History of the United States, revealing omissions, misleading implications, and inaccuracies in Zinn’s work. At times she checks Zinn’s book against primary documents (such as Jefferson’s reviling slavery in his rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, Alexis de Tocqueville’s evaluations of mid-19th century America, and military documents and personal accounts regarding the wars of the 20th century), other historians (such as Gordon Wood and David McCullough, and several historians sympathetic to Zinn’s explicitly communist aims), and even Zinn’s own work outside of the book that contradicts its claims.

Grabar’s overall aim and effect, of course, is to deflate the aura of profundity that has surrounded Zinn’s work in American political and educational culture. Citing examples of public educators basing curricula on Zinn’s work throughout, Grabar tracks how the assumptions of The People’s History became so ubiquitous in American society, even to the point of influencing local and nationwide politics in recent decades. She also pinpoints key leaders who have based their agendas and platforms on Zinn’s “view from the bottom” interpretation (and, Grabar argues, re/misinterpretation) of history. Linking the dismantling of different social institutions and cultural assumptions in recent years, Grabar argues for the rejection of Zinn’s ahistorical influence on our culture.

As the title suggests, this book is not a history but, rather, an expose. It provides part biography, part summary, and part reference for contextualizing Zinn against historians. Grabar is open about the book’s aim. Having personally heard much of Zinn’s perspective growing up and becoming an educator in English and US history, I found the biographical timeline about Zinn most interesting and informative, as well as most effective in establishing Zinn as a political agitator and polemicist for the Left instead of a historian. I have used several sources Grabar references when teaching on the US founding, and I plan to look into other historical sources in the future.

Author: dustinllovell

Writing professor, literature and US history tutor, previous ESL instructor, and would-be novelist who enjoys/specializes in Shakespeare, 19th century lit, and philosophy (whether in print or via audiobook). Author of the novel Sacred Shadows and Latent Light (Wipf and Stock, Resources Imprint). Member of Heterodox Academy. Columnist for The Mallard.

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