At age 86, Howard Zinn destroyed history. In the months following the death of his wife, Roz, in 2008, Zinn, the radical historian and political activist, combed through his archives, removing and disposing of any documents related to his personal, as opposed to political, life. The evidence of his existence as a husband, father, lover and friend, all essential for understanding the personality of one of 20th-century America’s most engaged intellectuals, disappeared into the fire. Why would a historian of Zinn’s caliber, who spent his career teaching, writing and living American history, so brutally censor his own life?
In an author’s note that opens his new biography, Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left, Martin Duberman records his regret at Zinn’s decision, and apologizes for his inability to present a rounded portrait of his subject. While Duberman does an excellent job of piecing together what personal information he can from interviews with Zinn’s friends and family, and letters in others’ archives, his book remains within the bounds of political biography. A Life on the Left traces Zinn’s development from his first engagement in radical politics in New York City in the late 1930s, through his activism in the civil rights struggle in the American South and his opposition to the Vietnam War, to his radical rewriting of American history from the vantage of the oppressed in his 1980 “A People’s History of the United States.”
And yet, the destroyed archive hangs like a shadow over the biography. Though Duberman never explicitly questions his subject’s motivations, from his portrayal of Zinn’s character and the arc of his life, the destructive act takes on archetypical significance, telling not only of how Zinn wished to be remembered, but also of what he thought history to be.
Read the full review of Martin Duberman’s “Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left” from 2012 in Haaretz.