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On Howard Zinn

My journal entry from April 17, 1997: “Bought Zinn’s Can’t Be Neutral.  Ate a heavy calzone and too much garlic bread.  At Wordsworth books in Harvard Square, someone asked the clerk where he could find books on marionettes.”

In this rather unremarkable fashion, Howard Zinn’s memoir entered my life, equally sharing diary space that day with food and puppets.  I had already read and reveled in A People’s History of the United States, thanks to a colleague who had recommended it, but I knew little of Zinn the man.  You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times introduced me to Zinn the teacher, the activist, the historian.  I have reread sections of that book many times since then.  So last week, the first thing I thought of when I heard that Zinn had passed away was the experience of reading that book thirteen years ago.

I read Can’t Be Neutral as I was finishing up my third and final year of teaching high school English at a private boarding school in New Hampshire.  Those three years had constituted a kind of intellectual awakening for me that Zinn’s autobiography capped off perfectly.  I was reading widely and often during my tenure as a secondary teacher—books by Albert Murray, Cornel West, C.S. Lewis, Sven Birkets, bell hooks, Michel Foucault, Theodore Sizer, Jonathan Kozol, Vladimir Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Jane Smiley, J.M. Coetzee, Alice Walker, John Irving, Toni Morrison.  These theorists, critics, and novelists constantly filled my head with ideas and inspired me to fill my journals with amateur stabs at cultural analysis.  But it was Zinn that focused my wayward reading habits for me.

Zinn prompted me to conceptualize how I could translate everything that I was reading and growing passionate about into a classroom teaching practice.  He helped me see how my writing and research interests could complement my teaching, rather than remain separate from it.  Moreover, he helped me understand that my own life experience, my own ideas about the world, my own beliefs did not necessarily have to be disconnected from what I did in the classroom.  This may seem like an obvious proposition to many in academia today, but for me, at the time, as a twenty-something high school teacher contemplating applying to Ph.D. programs, this was a revelation.  I found Zinn’s passion, his zest for teaching history, contagious.  That fall, I applied to graduate school.  I thought the field of American Studies seemed like just the place where I could put my new ideas about research and teaching into practice.  As it turns out, I was right.

I always find it interesting how certain books come into our lives at particular moments.  How we choose to buy that one book instead of any other in the store.  How we pull that one book off of our shelf—the one that has been collecting dust for years, one of many we have never read—and glance at the first few pages and suddenly leap in.  How we then integrate that book into our everyday life at that exact moment, using it to help us make sense of our world.  I’m grateful that I picked up Can’t Be Neutral when I did.

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