Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Man of the People's: Farewell Howard Zinn

Lanky Howard Zinn, who died this week at the age of 87, bore a sort of passing resemblance to Abraham Lincoln and spoke with much the same impassioned eloquence. “People I meet all over the country have a great reservoir of common sense and common decency,” the historian said during a 2004 phone interview from his home in the leafy Boston suburb of Auburndale. “That gives me hope.”

Zinn’s abiding faith in humanity is evident in You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, a profile co-directed by Vermont resident Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller of Chicago. The documentary, released six years ago, traces the extraordinary life of a man whose teaching, writing and activism have influenced generations. One contemporary young acolyte is Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder, who contributed a song (“Down”) to the film. He later shipped his mentor two custom-made skateboards emblazoned with Zinn’s image -- both of which the octogenarian then regifted to Ellis’ adolescent son. Matt Damon, who narrates the documentary and Ben Affleck were Massachusetts teenagers when they first became entranced by Zinn’s landmark publication A People’s History of the United States. The successful actors long wanted to produce a TV mini-series based on the myth-busting 1980 tome, which has sold more than one million copies. In it, Zinn details many shameful episodes, beginning with Christopher Columbus and the Arawak Indians that ordinary textbooks have covered up or not covered at all.

The dream to broadcast People’s History finally came more or less to fruition in December 2009. The History Channel broadcast a staged reading of excerpts from the book by thespians such as Damon, Josh Brolin, Sandra Oh, Danny Glover, Viggo Mortensen and Marisa Tomei. The program was interspersed with performances by the likes of Vedder (Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War”), Bruce Springsteen (“The Ghost of Tom Joad”), Randy Newman (“Sail Away”) and Dylan himself (Woody Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi”). There’s a soundtrack album and the DVD will be out on February 22. Decades earlier, Zinn had inspired another slate of emerging idealists, a period depicted on camera with persuasive testimony. “His capacity for moral outrage fed my spirit,” explains Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund. Along with author Alice Walker, also interviewed in Moving Train, she attended Spelman College in Atlanta when Zinn taught and headed the history department there just as the Civil Rights era was dawning. The conservative, primarily African-American school fired him for encouraging students to tackle the scourge of segregation as a social science project. Their academic exercise quickly aligned itself with the mushrooming public demonstrations throughout the South. “He was spellbinding,” recalls Vermont filmmaker Jay Craven, who was in one of the classes Zinn conducted while a professor of history and political science at Boston University during the late 1960s. “Howard really developed the art of storytelling in his work,” Ellis said of Zinn’s appeal.

Despite growing up in a New York City tenement with no books, he became an avid reader at an early age. Onscreen, Zinn remembers how his immigrant parents would give him the required ten cents to buy mail-order novels by Charles Dickens. Those gritty 19th-century tales fed his nascent commitment to righting society’s wrongs. Although immersed in the labor movement and other leftist causes, in the 1940s Zinn joined the Army Air Corps to fight fascism overseas. But his experiences as a bombardier left him with strong anti-war sentiments. He opposed U.S. military incursions, from Vietnam to Iraq. “The danger is we’ll lose the soul of America,” he warns a crowd protesting the Persian Gulf hostilities at a 2002 rally included in Moving Train.

Ellis remembers Zinn as “loyal and honorable, a mensch who spoke from his heart.” But, of course, his heart-talk frequently clashed with mainstream assumptions. She points out that one of her goals in making the documentary was to show “dissent itself is patriotic.” In 1968 Zinn visited Hanoi. A fellow activist on the trip, Chicago Seven alum Tom Hayden was one of several talking heads recruited by Ellis and Mueller. He describes a song swap with their North Vietnamese hosts at which his Boston colleague belted out “America the Beautiful.”

Or maybe not. “That’s a lovely tune, but I wouldn’t have chosen it in a country being bombed by the U.S.,” Zinn demurred on the phone. “If I have any memory at all, my recollection is of singing ‘We Shall Overcome.’”

--Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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