[Howard Zinn raw #22]

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An interview with historian Stanley Kutler, a contemporary of Howard Zinn. He discusses Howard Zinn, his success, and the discipline of history as a whole.

0:23 Historian Stanley Kutler pushes back against the idea that Howard Zinn’s history is “radical” or “outside the mainstream.” He says that the historical material Howard Zinn uses comes from the body of mainstream history. He discusses how Howard Zinn breaks down the ways in which historians in the past have portrayed and presented Columbus. He says Zinn’s work reminds us of the importance of class throughout American history, especially in his look at immigration and industrialization in the early 19th century.

7:02 Kutler responds to a question from filmmaker Denis Mueller about the 1890s, referred to as “The Gay Nineties.” He says that there was a lot of exciting activity around the labor movement and class struggle in the United States during that decade that gets set aside in favor of John D. Rockefeller and J. P. Morgan.

9:35 Kutler talks about the enormous impact of Zinn’s writings, especially outside the academy. He says Zinn has a reputation for articulating a particular vision that people want to hear, but this is not reflected in popular culture.

11:01 Stanley Kutler says that the success of A People’s History of the United States can be attributed in part to the book’s title, the passion and compassion with which Zinn writes, and Zinn’s frank rejection of neutrality.

13:01 Kutler says he’s not fond of talking about different “schools” of history. He says that the elites are often historically relevant because they are often the people making decisions that affect others and affect history.

14:01 Stanley Kutler says that the writing of history is a selective process. “We select our facts, we select our data, to tell a story that reflects upon a view. We all do it to some extent.” He says Howard Zinn both recognizes the importance and significance of Columbus as a navigator and emphasizes the brutal, inhumane actions he undertook. He says Howard Zinn’s writing voice is what makes him and his work so compelling.

17:38 Kutler explains that you can find books like A People’s History that cover specific events or periods through a similar historical lens and Zinn, in compiling all these events into a single volume, reveals a whole other side of American history.

19:26 Kutler says Zinn’s work is important because it reminds us of the importance of class in American history. “One of the myths, by which this country lives, is that this is the great classless society, that in America, as the old Yiddish expression goes – a shuster (shoemaker) can become a mister.” He acknowledges the prevalence of social mobility in the United States, but emphasizes that it isn’t universal. He talks about how social mobility and social recognition were withheld from black people in the South after the end of the Civil War.

21:30 Kutler says that he and Zinn had different experiences writing their respective dissertations, but shared in the fundamental process of focusing on a research topic, compiling data, and presenting a story.

23:32 Kutler says that looking back, he’s struck by how Zinn’s books are able to draw together different eras of American history to underscore the recurring themes of exploitation and oppression.

25:55 Asked about the historians who dislike Zinn’s work, Kutler explains that Zinn’s writings go against the consensus around the history of the United States consisting of the progressive development of a ever more perfect union. On the question of objectivity, he says that it belongs in the graveyard. He discusses how Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., a critic of Zinn’s, is himself an object of criticism for many.

30:08 Kutler says that history is the story of where we’ve been. He says that it is important to remember and consult and learn from.

32:24 Kutler explains how Zinn offers a synthesis of information that resonates powerfully with its readers. He says that while Zinn’s books may be radical in the sense that he aligns himself with the exploited and downtrodden, but he doesn’t think that his values and ideals depart from the norms of what we as Americans aspire to be.

33:59 Kutler points out that most history textbooks involve multiple authors and that Zinn, in working alone, is able to articulate a clear, opinionated vision through his writings. “It’s in the nature of so much of our scholarship today, people have to pass peer-review and so forth, they don’t want to offend this person or that person. Howard is a free spirit in that respect. He has no concern with tenure, promotion, salaries and so forth, he’s very much his own man. That’s what makes him very refreshing.” He says that nobody has ever found Zinn short on courage.

37:42 Kutler says that the compassion and generosity of spirit that Zinn writes with is reflected in his personality.

38:23 Kutler discusses how before black history became en vogue at schools in the 1960s, curricula at black schools had already been maintaining a heavy focus on the effects of the events of American history on black people, including Manifest Destiny and the Mexican-American War.

40:00 Cutaway footage of Kutler.

 

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