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Voices of a People's History of the United States

reviewed by Daniel Walkowitz - 2005

coverTitle: Voices of a People's History of the United States
Author(s): Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove (Editors)
Publisher: Seven Stories Press, New York
ISBN: 1583226281 , Pages: 736, Year: 2004
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Since its appearance twenty-fives years ago, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (1980) has transformed the ways thousands, if not millions, of Americans understand how and to what extent class and race have shaped American history.  It is little surprise that Zinn, a distinguished and widely published historian, would have produced such an important book, but few might have expected that a book by a radical New Left civil rights and peace activist would crack the popular market, even winning enthusiastic recommendations from no less than Oprah Winfrey. Seven Stories Press has now produced a companion document collection that gives full voice to the compelling and eloquent characters Zinn draws upon to illustrate A People’s History.

The collection, organized into 24 chapters with as few as four and as many as fifteen documents, spans the entirety of American History, with substantial attention to the recent past.  It opens, for instance, with an excerpt from the Diaro of Christopher Columbus and, although it concludes with the lyrics from Patti Smith’s clarion populist call, “People Have the Power,” (1988), the penultimate selection is Kurt Vonnegut’s biting critique of George W. Bush’s first term, “Cold Turkey,” a May 31, 2004 reprint from the independent Left magazine, In These Times.  These three selections also represent a good cross-section of the collected documents: they range from the lyrical to the acerbic, from the documentary to the journalistic.  Most are short and to the point, often no more than two or three pages, a few extend to five or six.  Unlike other academic document collections, this volume sacrifices some possibilities for formal classroom exegesis of sustained argument for a fuller range of voices.  But I think the trade-off works quite well, especially as the selections allow us to hear the often appalling sentiments that often drove American social and imperial policy, yet at the same time we get to hear voices, often muted in the dominant media, of those who resisted such policies.  The perspectives of policy makers have dominated textbooks unlike Zinn’s, and this collection presumes readers can and have heard their accounts elsewhere.  So, rather than rehearse elite pieties, when the authors do draw upon such sources, it is to draw attention to the xenophobia and class bias that so often directed official policies (e.g., the Proclamation of the New Hampshire Legislature against the poor who chopped down trees for firewood -- the Mast Tree Riot of 1834).

At the heart of this collection, however, are voices of resistance, both to racist, classist, imperial American institutions and to the dominant Whig narrative of our past that silences these voices.  As important, against the pervasive tendency of critics to view such radical sentiments as a thing of the past – consigned to the radical ‘30s or ‘60s – the authors have disproportionately emphasized more contemporary voices.   The first five chapters take readers rather quickly through the first four centuries of a colonial past of imperial conquest, servitude (indentured and chattel), and revolutionary fervor.  Chapter six, on the “Early Woman’s Movement” brings the story into the nineteenth century, and the number of selections becomes more expansive, as we move through discussions of Indian Removal, Expansionism, Slavery and Civil War, and Labor protest against the ravages of capitalist industrialization.  Half way through the chapters, although well less than half way through the collection, the reader reaches the twentieth century,   Indeed, with fully a quarter of the book dedicated to the last third of the twentieth century, the volume is an unusually and extraordinarily rich introduction to modern America that will especially appeal to the presentist obsession (alas!) of younger readers and students.

This is a terrific collection.  The editor’s notes that introduce readings are brief, sacrificing what might have provided helpful points of entry to a reading (omitting the Know Nothingism of Joe Tyler Headley, for instance, whose account of the 1863 draft riot is excerpted) so readers can focus on texts themselves, and more of them.  Moreover, Zinn has provided a radical’s view of the public; readers should not expect to hear a full range of popular perspectives.   One will not find the voice of the KKK vigilantes here; nor, for the contemporary era, will one find the voice of ‘Right-to-Life’ activists who have appropriated the techniques of civil rights advocates nor those of religious fundamentalists who have mobilized around ‘family values.’  Zinn’s voices are, for the most part, those of radical peoples.   And fair enough; there are plenty of other places to hear mainstream points of view.  The voices in this collection ring loud and clear, voices that articulate a profound counternarrative which dominant media, political babble and, alas, most textbooks, mute to the peril of ours and world’s future.


Zinn, H. (1980). A people’s history of the United States.  New York: Harper and Row.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 11, 2005, p. 2454-2456
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11842, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 7:50:31 PM

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About the Author
  • Daniel Walkowitz
    New York University
    E-mail Author
    DANIEL WALKOWITZ is Director of College Honors and Professor of History and Social and Cultural Analysis, New York University. He is also the author of Working With Class: Social Workers and Middle Class Identity in 20th Century America (North Carolina, 1999); co-editor (with Lisa Maya Knauer) of Memory and the Impact of Political Transformation on Public Space (Duke, 2004) and is writing a book titled City Folk: English Country Dance and the Culture of Liberalism in the 20th Century US. City Folk is also the working title for a documentary for public television on the same subject in co-production with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.
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