Zinn For Beginners

Zinn For Beginners

by David Cogswell, Joe Lee

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Zinn For Beginners describes the life and work of the most vital historian of our time. Howard Zinn led a revolution in the writing of history by telling the story not from the standpoint of conquerors and rulers, but from the side of the ordinary people who always bear the brunt of the ambitions of tyrants.

Zinn tells the story ofSee more details below


Zinn For Beginners describes the life and work of the most vital historian of our time. Howard Zinn led a revolution in the writing of history by telling the story not from the standpoint of conquerors and rulers, but from the side of the ordinary people who always bear the brunt of the ambitions of tyrants.

Zinn tells the story of Columbus’ discovery of America from the standpoint of the native people whose hands Columbus cut off to terrorize them into giving him gold. He tells the story of the Civil War not from the point of view of the great generals who directed the slaughter, but from that of the slaves and from the ordinary people who gave up their lives in the struggle. It tells of the Spanish-American War from the point of view of Mark Twain, who wrote, “When the smoke was over, the dead buried, and the cost of the war came back to the people... it suddenly dawned on us that the cause of the Spanish-American war was the price of sugar... that the lives, blood, and money of the American people were used to protect the interest of the American capitalists.”

Howard Zinn’s fresh look at history has earned him a devoted following. Zinn For Beginners tells the story of where Zinn came from, what events shaped his life, and walks through the main points of his major works.

David Cogswell is a writer based in Hoboken, N.J. He has written thousands of articles on business, travel, politics, and the arts for various print and online publications, including Democratic Underground, Bushwatch, Prison Planet, Indymedia.org, Fortune.com, Travel Weekly, the Hudson Current, and the Jersey Journal. He has contributed pieces to a number of political books, including Fortunate Son, The Making of an American President, by J.H. Hatfield; Ambushed: The Hidden History of the Bush Family by Toby Rogers; and America’s Autopsy Report, by John Kaminski. He’s the publisher of the political and media commentary website HeadBlast (davidcogswell.com), which was banned in China and named as a notable antiwar website by The Guardian

Joe Lee is an illustrator, cartoonist, writer, and clown. With a degree from Indiana University centering on Medieval History, Joe is also a graduate of Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey’s Clown College. He worked for some years as a circus clown. He is the illustrator of a baker’s dozen of For Beginners books including, Barack Obama, [Howard] Zinn, Shakespeare, Postmodernism, Deconstruction, Eastern Philosophy, and Global Warming among others. Joe lives in Bloomington, Indiana with his wife Mary Bess, son Brandon, cat George, and the terriers (or rather terrors) Max and Jack. 

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This book is easy to read, it’s an eye-opener, and it’s a first-class piece of writing. - (Dead Trees Review)

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For Beginners
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Steerforth Press

Copyright © 2009 David Cogswell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-939994-25-7


Howard Zinn: A Life in History

In the world of Howard Zinn the subjects of history are intertwined with the lives of the ordinary people one encounters on the street during the course of a day. In his own life he has never separated the history he wrote about or taught in classrooms from the reality of his own existence and that of other people in the world. He does not take the stance of an objective historian who imagines himself to be standing outside of history, evaluating it dispassionately. On the contrary, he is driven by his passion, and his perspective on history is personal. For him life and history are one.

For Zinn, there is also no clear separation between the present and the past. History is an ongoing story. Zinn's version of history is a great adventure, more like a great novel than a dry textbook. As a history professor, he often turned to historical fiction instead of textbooks to bring history to life for his students. As William Faulkner put it, "the past is never dead; it isn't even past." Zinn drew a line through history connecting the struggles of people of the present with those of the past.

He was never merely an historian. He is first and last a flesh-and-blood human being who has loved and struggled and feels compassion for others who have done the same. He was also a born writer, driven from an early age to express himself through the written word, to explore his world through reading great literature of history, and to process his ideas and impressions through writing.

He was a teacher, who opened doors of the mind to thousands of students who passed through his classes. And he was an actor on the stage of history. Not merely a neutral bystander, he was an activist who dove into the struggles of his world and became one of the movers of history, who left a mark of his own, and encouraged others to do the same.

Zinn's life as an activist, his art as a writer, and his work as a teacher and historian are fused into one organic whole. By looking at his life, it is possible to develop an understanding of his ideas and his legacy as a historian. His life incorporates his history and vice versa.

Growing Up Working Class

Howard Zinn's story begins August 24, 1922, when he was born into a working class Jewish immigrant family on the Lower East Side of New York. He was the second of five boys born to Eddie and Jenny Zinn. Poverty was a nagging presence throughout his early life. His parents first met when they were both factory workers, and throughout their lives they worked hard just to keep the family housed and fed. Their first son died of spinal meningitis. Howard was stricken with rickets as a child, which made him skinny and frail. As a member of a poor family during the Depression, he had a working class consciousness from the beginning.

His father had come to America from Lemberg, a city in Eastern Europe that had at different times been part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Poland, and the Soviet Union. Today it's known as the city of Lvov in the Ukraine. Howard's mother was from the Rabinowitz family of Irkutsk, Siberia, next to Lake Baikal near Mongolia. When people have commented on his Asiatic features, he has suggested, half seriously, that it may be because his ancestry traces back deep into Asia near Mongolia. Howard's parents were Jewish, he says, but neither of them was particularly religious.

Eddie Zinn worked various factory and labor jobs, as a window cleaner, pushcart peddler, necktie salesman, and WPA (Works Progress Administration) worker. He eventually settled into the dull drudgery of waiting tables at restaurants and weddings, and became a member of the waiters union. Young Howard sometimes worked with his father at New Year's Eve parties. He loathed it, especially the demeaning attitude of the bosses and customers toward the waiters.

Zinn's father never escaped poverty. "All his life he worked very hard for very little," Zinn wrote in his autobiography. "I've always resented the smug statements of politicians, media commentators, and corporate executives who talked of how, in America, if you worked hard you would become rich." The implication that if you were poor it was because you hadn't worked hard enough was a lie, to Howard. He had seen his father and many others who worked harder than big time businessmen or politicians, but Eddie Zinn and others among his class never escaped poverty despite their diligence.

A Child's Discovery of the Written Word

Zinn's inherent affinity for the written word expressed itself early, in spite of the odds against it. The Zinn family was deeply engaged in an intense struggle for survival, always moving from place to place, and there were no books in the Zinn home. But by the time Howard was eight, he had become a voracious reader, reading whatever he could get his hands on. The first book he owned was a copy of Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, which he found on the street, minus some pages.

As poor as they were, his parents recognized his passion for books and tried to provide him with reading material whenever possible. With coupons saved from the New York Post every week Howard was able to buy one book a week for a few cents until he had acquired the entire collection of Charles Dickens' writings. Reading David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, Hard Times, Great Expectations, and Oliver Twist greatly influenced his view of the world.

Dickens brought to life the oppression of the working classes, and Howard was deeply moved by the stories and the characters. In later years he expressed admiration for Dickens' technique of portraying class oppression from the standpoint of children. It brought to life dramatically the harsh injustice of a social system that virtually enslaved young children. Because victims of the system were often children, the stories undercut the standard argument that people who were poor were to blame for their condition.

In 2001 Zinn told Harry Kreisler of the Institute of International Studies, "From Dickens what I got was this ferocious acknowledgement of the modern industrial system and what it does to people, and how poor people live and the way they are victimized, and the way the courts function. The way justice works against the poor. Yes, it was Dickens's class consciousness that reinforced my own. It was a kind of justification for the beliefs I was already developing. Yes; it told me, what reading very often does for you, tells you are not alone in these secret thoughts you have."

Because his family moved so much, he changed schools often and got used to being the new kid in class. But in spite of the constant moving, he was such a good student that he was allowed to skip a grade when he transferred to Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn, where he joined a writers program and a writers club.

His parents scraped together the money to buy him a typewriter and he taught himself how to type. He soon became as dedicated to writing as he was to reading. Writing became a constant activity, like a bodily function. Every time he read a book, he typed a review of it. But his family's persistent financial problems eventually became a distraction from studies and Howard became alienated from school. He started skipping classes, sometimes playing hooky for weeks at a time and devising schemes to elude the truant officer.

In 2008 Zinn reflected on his development as a writer:

I don't know if I considered myself a 'writer' consciously, but I did start to write almost as soon as I began to read, when I kept a notebook with reviews of the books I read. I was reading Upton Sinclair and John Steinbeck and Richard Wright and Charles Dickens. I was thirteen when my parents bought me a used Underwood #5 typewriter, which came with a booklet with instructions—showing the keyboard, etc. I just wrote reviews. But I saw myself as a journalist, and in the Air Force, coming back from overseas, stationed at Barksdale Field in Shreveport, Louisiana, I edited a newspaper called the Barksdale Bark for the airfield, and wrote some bold editorials criticizing the army for keeping soldiers in the service after the war was over. Of course as a student at NYU and a graduate student at Columbia, I was writing papers and a masters essay and a doctoral dissertation, and in all of those instances writing in a popular style, avoiding scholarly jargon. It was only when I went south and became involved in SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] and the Southern movement that I started writing about what I saw in the South, as a participant in the movement, writing about the demonstrations in Albany, Georgia; Selma, Alabama; various towns in Mississippi. As for fiction, I spent a summer around 1959 writing a novel based on the Colorado mine strike of 1912-14 and the Ludlow Massacre, but it was rejected by several publishers and I dropped it. I only began writing plays—though I had long wanted to, my whole family being involved in the theater at one time or another—when the Vietnam War was over and I could stop speaking and writing about the war, with time now to work on a play. At this point I have no desire to write any more books. After writing a 700-page history book that has sold almost two million copies, and a number of other books, I feel I have said pretty much what I have wanted to say, though I still write short pieces, columns for The Progressive, articles for The Nation, op-ed pieces for the Boston Globe and other newspapers. If I get some time, I want to write another play. I'm not thinking of anything autobiographical. [Interview with the author]


Though his working class point of view was a natural result of growing up poor, Zinn pinpoints one particular moment that galvanized him politically and turned him into a radical. It was about 1940, at the beginning of World War II. Zinn was seventeen years old. He had become acquainted with some young people who were members of the Communist Party. Many socially conscious Americans at that time still thought Communism might be a positive movement that would undo some of the social injustices in the world.

In the early twentieth century, for example, the Communist Party was the only political party that supported voting rights for blacks in America. Communism had emerged as a more humane alternative to the predatory form of capitalism that had led to the Great Depression, in which millions were left poor and homeless in America. Americans who called themselves Communists in those days held to a more idealistic view of Communism than was actually being practiced by Stalin in Russia.

The young Communists Zinn met were intelligent and well-informed. Their arguments were persuasive. Though Zinn did not become a convert to their cause, he did accept an invitation to participate in a demonstration in Times Square in support for peace, justice, and similar causes. According to Zinn, the demonstration was proceeding in an orderly and nonviolent way, when suddenly he heard sirens and screaming. Hundreds of policemen charged into the crowd, some on horses and some on foot, swinging clubs into people's heads. One police officer's swinging club caught Zinn on the skull and he was knocked unconscious. When he came to, with an aching lump on his head, the world looked different.

Zinn was profoundly shocked that such a thing could happen in America. Wasn't America a democracy where people had the right to speak, write, assemble, and demonstrate to express their grievances, as guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights? In one swift blow, his faith in democracy, equality, and freedom of the individual in America were shattered. Suddenly he saw that the Communists were right. The police weren't impartial peacekeepers, enforcing the law and the Constitution equally and fairly for all people. They were servants of the rich and powerful. Free speech was a fine thing in the high-flown words of the Constitution. But if you offended the established powers by saying the wrong things, you might well end up on the wrong side of a club or a gun, or under the galloping hooves of a horse.

That crash on the skull changed Zinn's perspective on the world. Up until then, he had considered himself a liberal who believed in American democracy and its ability to correct itself as it progressed along the twists and turns of history. But no more. From then on, he was a radical. Now he felt strongly that something was terribly wrong with the system, and that the illness was deeper than he had previously believed. It would not be cured by merely electing a new president or passing some new legislation. Fixing the problem would require tearing down the old order to its foundation, and rebuilding a society based on equality, peace, and cooperation.

Love and War

After Zinn graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School he enrolled in Brooklyn College. Attendance was free, but Howard's family's economic problems were so severe that he still couldn't afford to go to school. There was no time for education; he needed to produce an income. So at age eighteen, he dropped out of college and went to work in a shipyard. For three years he worked on the docks, building battleships for the war and helping to land ships. Working in freezing cold and stifling heat, Zinn felt the hardships of his labor: His ears were pummeled by deafening noises while his lungs and sinuses were invaded by poisonous fumes.

But harsh as conditions were, Howard's time in the shipyard brought him to his most sublime, transcendent experience, his meeting with the love of his life, Roslyn Schechter in 1942. It started, however, on a note of betrayal.

A basketball buddy of Howard's asked him to deliver his army insignia to a girl he had a crush on but was too shy to approach himself. Howard tracked Roslyn down at her parents' apartment, and when he encountered her, he was smitten. Roslyn had beautiful, long, chestnut blonde hair and the face of a Russian beauty in Howard's estimation. He was delighted when she suggested they take a walk around the block.

Roz and Howard found an instant affinity. Roslyn shared Howard's passion for reading. In fact, his Russian beauty was deeply absorbed in the works of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. He was immersed in the works of Marx and Engels and the fiction of Upton Sinclair. They had similar attitudes and feelings about the most urgent issues and controversies of the time, such as socialism, fascism, and World War II.

Meeting Roslyn galvanized him, awakened new horizons and aspirations. After living his life in a grim working class netherworld, and running into a dead end after high school, Howard felt the intense desire to shake things up. He and Roz were both passionately anti-fascist and saw World War II as a battle against tyranny, racial discrimination, militarism, fanatic nationalism, and expansionism. He wanted to be a part of the struggle, so he volunteered for the Army Air Corps.

Without even telling his parents, he walked into the induction center and volunteered. He was subjected to a battery of physical and mental tests, and then was told he had been rejected. But the fiery young Howard was not to be deterred. His desire to fight fascism was so fervent, he asked to see the examining officer again, and pleaded to be allowed to join the fight. The officer was so impressed with Zinn's zeal that he relented and let him join.

His induction ushered in a period of intense movement around the United States in preparation for war. It began with four months of basic training as an infantryman at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, where he was indoctrinated in the fundamental skills and attitudes of soldiering. He was then transferred to Burlington, Vermont, where he learned how to fly a Piper Cub airplane. From there, he was whisked away to Nashville, Tennessee, to take exams to determine whether he would be better suited to serve as a pilot, a navigator, or a bombardier. When it was decided that he would be a bombardier, he was sent on to Santa Ana, California, for preflight training, to Las Vegas for six weeks at gunnery school, and finally to Deming, New Mexico, to learn how to use the Norden bombsight. He had a good eye and was promoted to the rank of second lieutenant. By then he had earned his first furlough, eleven days at home before shipping off to Europe to begin bombing missions.

While he was in basic training, he and Roz got into an intense correspondence, developing an intimate relationship through letters. His passion for writing merged with his new love for Roslyn.


Excerpted from ZINN FOR BEGINNERS by DAVID COGSWELL, JOE LEE. Copyright © 2009 David Cogswell. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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