Howard Zinn carried a heavy load lightly. He did this in matters both delicate and momentous. He could see a way through, sometimes a way nobody else saw, and would not only take the first step, but the next, and the next as well, unhesitatingly. Now that he is gone, those of us who loved him, and there are many of us, could all do one thing we may not have thought seriously about yet: Find in ourselves some of what we used to find in him.
You didn’t have to agree with Howard to be affected by his point of view, because there was always an underlying set of convictions that you agreed with. Here was a man who knew his own mind, who said what he thought, who acted according to his principles, who loved company, but who didn’t base his own commitment on whether he was one of many or an army of one. Who could not be drawn to such a man?
My earliest memory of Howard is of arguing with him when I was about 13 or 14, around 1971 or ’72 at one my parents’ parties. This would have been nine years or so before A People’s History of the United States appeared. Howard would have been young and a bit arrogant, bold and tough even when speaking to an adolescent, which of course thrilled me. Being treated with seriousness is what an adolescent wants more than anything else.
Howard was telling me that Abraham Lincoln wasn’t a great leader, but rather a man of middling convictions who was carried forward on a wave of popular feeling. I heard in his words not only an open disregard for Lincoln himself, but also for the very idea of leadership as I and I think most people understand it. I didn’t know much about Lincoln, but I wanted there to be great leaders in history, and I felt I had to disagree with his argument even before I quite fully understood it. I think that happened a lot to Howard. He liked not only to say things that had the force of powerful truths, he specifically was attracted, and found pleasure, I think, in unearthing those powerful truths that unsettled people, because so often those were the truths he believed mattered most. And that beautiful, annoying marksman’s aim of his never faltered.
The other thing we talked about a few times in those days was the role of the university. I wanted to know why Howard and other radical professors (my dad was at Harvard at the medical school, and my mom was, like Howard, at Boston University) didn’t start their own free, alternative university instead of working at places like B.U., Harvard, and M.I.T. What took me decades to understand was that in addition to being people of conscience, these were also men and women of their generation with families and no other means to provide for them except their university salaries. To really understand Howard, you must remember that his philosophy and principles were not only for the world out there, but also for the world within arm’s reach where his closest responsibilities lay. Kurt Vonnegut, my friend who later became Howard’s friend, used to speak of wives and children as “hostages to fortune,” by which he meant they depended on you and you better look after them no matter what else you were doing.
Roz and Howard became my confessors at one point in high school and conveyed to me, again, that even if I choose not to heed their advice, they would respect my right to make my own mistakes. I had been helping some of the Attica Brothers and William Kunstler spread the word of the trial that had put their lives on the line. Forty-three counts of murder and kidnapping had been leveled against all the prisoners who’d taken part in the uprising.
One of them was Roger Champen, a former prisoner who was now out on bail and traveling, speaking to raise awareness. I had invited Champ to speak to my high school, Newton North High, and gotten to know him a bit. About a year later, Champ disappeared. A lot of people were looking for him. Nobody knew where he was. Then I got a call from him asking me to meet him at Logan Airport.
I was afraid, but felt I had to go. Howard and Roz were the only people I told.
There aren’t many people who won’t tell you what to do when you are an adolescent in some trouble. Howard and Roz never told you what to do. They had a way of asking questions, of conveying a sense of importance and weight to your struggles, of not seeming to have more important things to do than listen. And of course, within hours, no more than hours, anything you had said to one of them they would have shared with the other. How many times did a conversation with Howard begin with, “Roz tells me you...” or did a conversation with Roz begin, “Howard told me about...”? I have never known a couple who communicated so well as those two. And that day, driving around with Champ, talking with him, listening to his account of why he had disappeared, still scared, trying to think of what I could do to help him out, I felt at least like a kid with good friends and not just like a kid in some trouble, and it made all the difference. Champ respected that I had shown up, that I was there to listen, that I didn’t have anything prepared to say to him; he appreciated the respect that was being shown to him despite his troubles, the latest of which he’d brought on himself.
Roz was lushly beautiful, though I don’t think it was ever easy to be Roz. There was always a kind of quivering hesitancy about her, too, and that was part of her charm but must have been painful for her, painful to live through from the inside out. She gave Howard so much, believed in him so much, believed in the importance of his writing and his activism. I think she drew a great deal of strength from him, but then also gave it back to him and became a source of his strength.
When I began to publish in the mid-1980s, Howard and Roz were informal advisors. In 1995 when my part of my first company, Four Walls Eight Windows, became Seven Stories Press, I turned to them in earnest and they became, along with the late Barbara Seaman, advisory board members who really earned their stripes. The funny part of that was that independent publishing was never really one of their obsessions. They admired Seven Stories for surviving and publishing great books, but I don’t think they ever quite realized that we do exactly the same thing as Harper and Row or Random House, sometimes not as well, but oftentimes better.*
The first book we did together was The Zinn Reader. Since that came out in 1997, we must have started working on it in 1995 or 1996. I can’t remember whose idea it was to bring together the shorter essays Howard had written over the years, published mostly in newspapers and magazines.
I do remember Howard and my satisfaction as the thematic structure emerged. Race, Class, History, War, Law, and Means & Ends were the subjects Howard’s mind always returned to, vividly, with great consistency and also with a lasting freshness, decade after decade after decade. And then, after many conversations over a period of months, I remember the shock I felt when the manuscript came in the mail. Each new one-paragraph introduction was placed at the front of each neatly typed essay, held together by a paper clip. Several hundred little bundles topped with several hundred paper clips, all perfectly neat, flawlessly, considerately presented, as if it were a thoughtful and loving gift rather than just a manuscript being delivered. I had never expected this. I had expected something sloppily, apologetically presented. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I almost want to say I still haven’t recovered from this small token of respect for the process we had just completed, and for the larger project that we were both a part of. Maybe it wasn’t such a big deal, but it felt to me like an epiphany. With Howard, you always felt that there was a larger project, the Movement, and that you were part of it.
Voices of a People’s History of the United States began as a breakfast conversation back in 1997 or 1998 in Wellfleet. Howard liked to meet in a coffee shop on Route 6 inside what had once been the old A & P. It was almost a truck stop kind of place, a place local working people went. There was nothing fancy about it except that Howard liked it. Howard always said afterward that the book was my idea. But I can say here categorically, for the record, that it was not my idea. It was something inside Howard that popped out, fully formed. We were talking about another idea I’d had for him, which was to write a People’s Economics. I thought Howard could do it. He knew he wasn’t the right person to do that book. “I’ll tell you what is a book that needs to be done,” he said, or words to that effect. And then he went on to describe the idea, which was to take the very short quotes in A People’s History and create a book giving those speeches, those letters, those accounts, in their original voices, in full. And then to add other voices that also tell the history of political struggle in America, not in a historian’s voice, but in the voices themselves of the brave blacks, women, striking workers, mutinying soldiers, rampaging farmers, suffragettes, gay rights activists, anti-war demonstrators, etc. who over the centuries have made American history by standing up and taking power back from the privileged few.
When I got back to New York a few days later, I chose a smart editor in our office and one or two days a week he went off to the library and came back laden with pounds and pounds of prospective texts, which he would then send off to Howard to review. Watching this process was like watching a ship slowly sinking. Howard wasn’t interested in reviewing so many texts. The more the amount of material mounted up, the less likely it was that the project would ever move forward. Eventually, the work stopped and we discontinued the project, thinking to start it all back up again if ever the right team emerged at some future date.
It was a couple of years later that a former South End Press editor named Anthony Arnove emerged as someone who could take on this task. The three of us worked in a way that I have not seen repeated on any other project. Everyone contributed as much as they could. There was little disagreement. So much had to be done. I reached out to Barbara Seaman to help with the history of the women’s rights movement.
At one point, I didn’t think that Howard was involved enough and I threatened to cancel the book. It just wasn’t good enough, I said, and in a number of areas it was glaringly weak. This was at a meeting in Howard’s office at Boston University which he still kept even though he had long since retired from there. Howard looked me in the eye and asked me what the cost would be to Seven Stories if we canceled the project. I said, “A lot.” He nodded and from that point brought a new surge of energy to his efforts.
Anthony and Howard and I set up almost daily 9:00 a.m. phone meetings for several months. The idea had always been clear in Anthony’s mind and my own that we were working in the service of Howard’s vision. But now it was Howard himself who was leading the charge, championing certain texts, telling us to discard others, effortlessly agreeing with or overriding suggestions Anthony or I made. And after three months of that, we were done. Well over 200 documents, all expressions of Howard’s way of seeing American history.
But in a sense the point we’d reached was only a new beginning, and it was then that Anthony took the reins. There was the matter of obtaining permission from rights holders, of assuring the integrity of one version of certain documents over another. There were Seven Stories staff who were working on these aspects, notably George Murer who took on the permissions task, but it was Anthony who was driving them. Getting permission from Bob Dylan or Public Enemy is not a straightforward proposition. There were hundreds of trails to follow and not one of them was straight. Certain sections were still weak, and again it was Anthony who drove the process to find new possibilities for Howard and me to review. In the end everyone played their role to perfection, as they always do in successful collaborations. It is right that Anthony’s and Howard’s names both appear on the book, since in the end they both were and are political organizers in the ongoing struggle for justice and human rights in America, and this book is a testament to them and to all those who came before them in that struggle.
We usually think of generosity as a considered act. In Howard’s case it was most often spontaneous. I once had a disagreement with Howard over royalties: he wanted to give away all his royalties on one particular project to a key collaborator. I insisted he should keep at least a portion for himself. We tussled. It was a matter of principle. And on matters of principle he liked his own mind and you couldn’t budge him. In this case, he saw the effort the other party had contributed, and then he didn’t care about anything else.
To Howard it was always about the Movement for peace and justice, about moving toward peace, about organizing against war. It wasn’t hard for him to put himself, body and soul, on the line for those worthy goals.
He had that ability to see each of his friends, and he had so many, as another self. We were and are his army—I don’t know another word that fits. He had a special place in his heart, though, for poets, and another, perhaps even larger, special place in his heart for political organizers—I say perhaps larger because a lot of people love poets or think they do, but not many people are looking out for the political organizers coming up. So Howard took that as another one of his very special missions.
To say he will be missed is the greatest of understatements.
*This is a blind spot in American politics of the Left: the very same folks who critique The Media for the most part do not have qualms about being published by The Media. In part it’s generational. Back when they were coming up, there were neither alternative publishing houses nor the whole dichotomy between corporate and independent presses. And in part it is because the Alternative Media has too often been shoddy when it comes to meeting its obligations and understanding that people need to live on what they earn as writers. There will come a day when voices of conscience do not publish except with presses of conscience. Someday authors will “graduate” from Random House to Seven Stories, and not the other way around. But we still have a long way to go before we get there.