Howard Zinn died this week. Howard Zinn is responsible for writing the second "grouchy" book I ever read - A People's History of the United States (first "grouchy" book goes to And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts). I picked up A People's History because I was hoping it would have a little more background than the version of history taught in school. Boy, was I surprised. This was the first time I ever realized what "Banana Republic" meant, why Iran might not quite love the United States, how the "empire" of the United States was built. Imperialism isn't taught in high school (at least not in the mid-1990s), not even as a topic of debate. I was righteouly angry, once again, that the people who make up the United States had been dumped on by an elitist government (and people who didn't even live in the United States had been dumped on). Grouch, grouch, grouch.
Does A People's History have bias? Yes. However, if the purpose of the book was to get people thinking about the effect of US policies on the lowest echelons on society, those with the fewest opportunities available, A People's History did just that. Zinn used source material that brings the voices of Native Americans, women, and immigrants to the surface - he championed the history of those who were politically and economically disenfranchised.
Zinn came to speak at the University of Iowa in the fall of 2005. The IMU Main Lounge was packed front to back, standing-room-only in the doorways to watch a stooped, elderly man in a sweater vest and enormous reading glasses speak about "voice". Making our voices heard, becoming aware of voices that were silent. It takes far more courage to speak out and do the unpopular thing than it does to stand by and remain silent. Zinn even made a joke that he had never been introduced by a University president because he tended to rile up the students (the UI is no stranger to social activism; the students set up a tent city on the Pentacrest to oppose US entry into Iraq and Afghanistan). Zinn signed books for quite some time after his speech. When I got to the front of the line he commented on my dog-eared, battered copy of A People's History, asking if the writing tasted good because I had obviously got my teeth into it (I said it tasted like brain food; he laughed).
Also, while we remember a man unable to remain silent we also remember a man who stubbornly refused his comment. JD Salinger died only a few hours after Zinn; he was 91 (wow). I don't have any commentary or personal story for Salinger on the occasion of his death. Because he hadn't published or granted interviews in decades (rumor has it he kept writing; will we ever see it, I wonder?), his death doesn't affect me quite as much as Zinn's. I put Salinger in the same box as Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald - "wrote good books, will never get to meet" (as opposed to Kurt Vonnegut, who kept writing books and I would have got down on the ground to kiss his feet had I met him) - so it's kind of like Salinger had died in 1980, the year of his last interview and long before I ever read The Catcher in the Rye. However, I raise a glass to the work Salinger left behind and plan to dig out my copy of Catcher for a long-overdue reread.
*Overheard on my way into the bookstore this morning; one ditzy girl was commenting to another ditzy girl about how "some Saliva guy that wrote a book about baseball died and everyone is talking about it". A depressingly sad but unavoidably overheard statement. I think I tripped over the rug while collecting my jaw off the floor.