Wednesday, March 17, 2010

St. Patrick's Day and history from the underside. . .

Thinking of St. Patrick's Day draws my mind to the lives of Irish immigrants to America in the nineteenth and early twentiety centuries.  Telling the story of these folks seems important to me as I consider the challenges facing strangers, laboring people and newcomers, whoever they may be or whenever they arrive in the United States. 

No one wrote history from "the underside" quite like the late Howard Zinn.  I ran across the following interview as I was searching for material on Irish immigrants.  I found important insights into Zinn's work and the discovery of the entire American story.

RL: A People's History of the United States is probably your best-known work. So many people who read the book have had their eyes opened, not only by the conclusions you reach but by your whole approach to history. Could you spell out what you mean by "people's history''?

HZ: I guess what I mean by a "people's history'' is basically two things. First, the content of history, which is different from traditional history in that I am telling of the lives of the people who are generally ignored by traditional history. For instance, the so-called great "economic miracle'' of the United States between the Civil War and World War 1, when the United States becomes an enormously powerful industrial nation--that's presented traditionally as a great and wonderful triumphal experience.

But left out of these traditional histories--it was very clear to me as I was studying both as an undergraduate and graduate student--was the experience of working people. Who were the people who worked for Rockefeller's refineries? Who were the people who worked on the transcontinental railroad? Who were the Chinese immigrants and Irish immigrants who died while working on the railroads. The girls in the textile mills of New England --going to work in the mills at the age of 12, dying at the age of 25--they were absent. I wanted to bring in these people.

The other thing is simply a point of view, simply to look at history with a different point of view, not just a different point of view in the academic sense, but very specifically to look at the events of American history from the point of view of people who have not had a voice, people who have been oppressed, and people whose struggles have not been noticed.

So I decided I wanted to tell the story of Columbus from the standpoint of the Indians that he encountered.

RL: Which is not the standard account.

HZ: And I wanted to tell the story of the Mexican War not just from the standpoint of the American soldiers who didn't know what they were doing, where they were going--many of them immigrants, desperate for a little money and a little attention--not only to tell the story from the standpoint of the GI's, which I wanted to do with every war, but also to tell the story from the standpoint of the so-called enemy, to see the Mexican War from the standpoint of the Mexicans--how "nice'' it is for them to have the United States take half their country as a result of the war and to commit atrocities in the course of it.

I wanted to tell the story of American history from the standpoint of women, Black people, Indians, of working people and of radicals and protesters.

As soon as I made that decision, it was clear this was going to be a different kind of history. And I have no doubt that the reason my book has reached so many people--to my surprise, actually, and certainly to the surprise of the publisher--is that people who read it were suddenly struck by the fact that I was telling American history from a very different viewpoint.

To read the entire interview click here.


Anonymous said...

Gutsy, Larry! The last time you even mentioned Zinn's name you got 47 (!) comments, including many that lambasted his very existence. Way to go! Don't let the Bas#*ds grind you down.

Larry James said...

This post and Prof Zinn put in mind of the current Texas State Board of Education's efforts to "do history" and to write a story for our children that matches their agenda. I'll post about that in a few days.

Anonymous said...

OMG (as school kids might text) - the Texas State Board of Education is such an emarassment!