Friday, 5 February 2010


My obituary of Howard Zinn is in today's Independent; you can link to it here. I was fascinated by his experiences as a B-17 bombadier; he was virtually the same age as one of my uncles, who did the same job during World War II, and was a staunch Democrat; I wondered if the two of them had ever compared notes.

My copy of The People's History Of The United States is in a box somewhere in storage; I couldn't check but I assume it was the first paperback edition so I don't know if that puts me among the elite 5,000 or not. But I recall reading it with great pleasure, not just because it was telling me that things I already knew where important, and showing me things I didn't know, but also because of those moments when I'd stop and laugh to myself, 'lighten up, Howard, we could've had a lot worse than Frank D Roosevelt; he wasn't THAT bad!' Of course, the failure, in progressive terms, of the last Democratic administration, and the perception that the current one is headed down the same road, brought neither me nor him pleasure. I believe the last thing he published was a small piece in the Nation evaluating Obama after one year--he pointed out that one year was far too short a time to be doing evaluations, but allowed as how he was prepared to be disappointed.


Unknown said...

Zinn would not give this piece high marks. There is no citation of his works, it is all summary. He was famous for his style but the piece gives us none of it. The first rule of creation, even in the lowly form of an obituary, is show not tell. Students are always told by me, even now, that the library should be central in their lives.

Michael Carlson said...

I'm pleased there is someone to speak for Howard Zinn now he's dead, but I wonder why you bother to use this responsibility to berate me again for not giving examples of someone's writing.

I'm not sure you understand the space limitations of an obituary, or what it's intention is

I am sure that Zinn was not famous for his style: he was famous for his content, for the thesis of his most famous book, for his political stances, for his research. Yes his style was engaging, but it wasn't revolutionary, and taking space from 1000 words on such an important life to give paragraphs of samples would be a waste of my and the reader's time.

Sorry this distresses you enough to keep criticising me for the way I write. But thanks for the passing on the first rule of creation to a lowly obituary writer. Gee I hadnt thought of that before.

Unknown said...

I did not say this before.

But I do not see how it is a waste of readers' time to give examples of a writer's style.

All the more so in this age of googling, I advise students that the art of quotation is a vital part in showing close engagement with the subject rather than secondary summary. All the best critics and historians have had that imaginative empathy which enables them to home in upon something which conveys an author's spirit. It is not of course the same thing as coining the original words but it is perhaps a form of creative spirit.

Michael Carlson said...

And how lucky they must be for your advice...