The historians who are dismissing Howard Zinn today are giving left-handed compliments to the influence of his A People’s History of the United States, which has reached tens of millions through the world.
A People’s History was and is a general text, like William Appleman Williams’s Tragedy of American Diplomacy and Contours of American History — and for that matter Richard Hofstadter’s American Political Tradition and Age of Reform. Good history, as a distinguished professor of mine at the University of Michigan forty-five years ago, the late John Higham, is not based on the “jam-packed synthesis” saying everything from all sides that you are expected to say with footnotes and then, “this was my interpretation of this statement.” You end up saying nothing. All historians make choices as they develop their narratives. Williams and Hofstader were in their general texts as historians no better or worse than Howard Zinn. Their choices were different based on their frameworks. Howard Zinn, like William Appleman Williams, challenged the dominant ideology the conventional wisdom. His success tells us more about that conventional wisdom, its relevance, and also those who purveyed and continue to purvey it than his work
Frankly, I have my own interpretative difference with Howard Zinn on his treatment of Columbus, the American Revolution, and other issues, but that does not in any way limit my enormous respect for him as both a scholar and an activist, the opposite of many of his critics, the “scholar squirrels” as Gore Vidal called them, who amass great quantities of facts and footnotes and then bury them, either afraid to interpret them outside of conventional wisdoms or really not having any intellectual framework that would enable them to do so.