Friday, January 29, 2010

Howard Zinn

Historian and activist Howard Zinn passed away Wednesday at age 87. Zinn's family said that he had had a heart attack while swimming in Santa Monica, CA.

Howard Zinn was born August 24, 1922 in Brooklyn to a Jewish immigrant family. His parents were factory workers with little education, and Zinn's introduction to literature came when they sent 25 cents and a coupon to the New York Post in return for a collection of Charles Dickens' writings. He joined the Army Air Force in World War II. As a bombardier, he participated in attacks upon Berlin, as well as parts of Czechoslovakia and Hungary. At Royan, in southwest France, he also took part in one of the first attacks using napalm. After the war, Zinn found out that the napalm attack killed 1500 innocent French along with the German soldiers in hiding there. This discovery helped influence Zinn's decision to become a pacifist in later years.

Zinn attended New York University on the GI Bill. He moved on to Columbia for his postgraduate work, earning his Ph.D. in history with a minor in political science in 1958. By that time he had landed his first job in academia, as chairman of the history and social studies department at Spelman College in Atlanta. His experience at the historically black women's college led to involvement in the civil rights movement. Among his students were author Alice Walker and Children's Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman. But Zinn's increasing political activity, notably his work in advising the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, angered the school's administration. In 1963, Spelman fired him for insubordination.

The next year, Zinn took a position in the political science department at Boston University. His classes on civil liberties quickly became among the most popular on campus. Once again, Zinn became heavily involved in political activism, particularly the efforts to stop the Vietnam War. In 1968, his diplomatic visit to Hanoi with the Rev. Daniel Berrigan resulted in the release of three US prisoners of war, the first set free since the US bombing of North Vietnam began. Later, he helped edit a set of government documents secretly copied by Daniel Ellsberg that became known as the Pentagon Papers, and served as an expert witness at Ellsberg's trial for theft, conspiracy, and espionage.

Of the many books Zinn wrote during his career, the best-known was A People's History Of The United States, published in 1980. Ever since participating in the civil rights marches of the 60's, Zinn had noticed that history almost always had been focused from the perspective of society's most powerful, and his goal was to create a textbook that contained the voices of America's lower classes, and to present a side of the historical narrative that had been overlooked. A People's History, by frequently casting America's past leaders as greedy, bloodthirsty exploiters, caused a stir among historians when first published. Nevertheless, the book spurred further efforts to consider history from alternative viewpoints, particularly those of the poor and minorities. A People's History became an unlikely popular success as well, with nearly 2,000,000 copies sold.

Zinn retired from teaching in 1988. In typical fashion, he finished his last class and then hurried off to join a picket line. He continued to write with regularity, with his articles frequently appearing in publications such as The Progressive and The Nation, and also continuing to write books, including several highly critical of the Iraq War. One of his last projects was a documentary, The People Speak, based on his A People's History and featuring appearances by Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Rosario Dawson, Bob Dylan, and many others. In one of his last interviews, Zinn said he wanted to be remembered "for introducing a different way of thinking about the world, about war, about human rights, about equality," and "for getting more people to realize that the power which rests so far in the hands of people with wealth and guns, that the power ultimately rests in people themselves and that they can use it." Indeed, Howard Zinn was highly successful in getting millions to reconsider how they thought about history and America's relationship with the world, myself included.

I highly recommend visiting The Nation's website and checking out the videos featured in their Howard Zinn tribute. Zinn also returned to Spelman College in 2005 to give the commencement address. That speech is one of Zinn's most stirring moments, and a good introduction for those unfamiliar with the rest of the historian's work.

(Crossposted at SteveAudio and They Gave Us A Republic.)

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Jumping back into it

Well, I don't do a whole lot of jumping these days. But Jenn's daughter Amanda is participating in a fundraiser for the American Heart Association, and one of the things she's doing is jumping rope to help raise money, keep her heart healthy, and learn about heart disease, especially the sorts that affect kids. Y'all can help her out! Just click the link to Amanda's page and help her out with what you can. Amanda appreciates it, and Jenn and I appreciates it too! Thanks!

J.D. Salinger

J.D.Salinger, reclusive author of the classic The Catcher In The Rye, passed away Wednesday at his New Hampshire home. He was 91.

Salinger, the son of a cheese merchant, began writing short stories while attending Valley Forge Military Academy, usually late at night under the covers. He enrolled at New York University in 1936, but dropped out during the spring semester. His father then sent him to Vienna to learn about the meat-importing business, leaving there in early 1938, shortly before Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany.

From there he spent a semester at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania, then returned to New York to take a night class in creative writing at Columbia University. He managed to sell a few short stories to publications like Esquire and The Saturday Evening Post. In 1941, The New Yorker bought his "Slight Rebellion Off Madison", but held it for five years, fearful that its rebellious theme would encourage youngsters to drop out of school. In the meantime, Salinger was drafted into the Army to serve in World War II, landing at Utah Beach on D-Day and seeing action in The Battle Of The Bulge. While on the campaign from Normandy into Germany, he also met with Ernest Hemingway, who was serving as a war correspondent in Paris. He also continued writing through the war, the quality of his work markedly improving. The New Yorker published his first major success, "A Perfect Day For Bananafish", in 1948, setting the stage for his greatest triumph.

The Catcher In The Rye sparked something of an uproar when it was published in 1951. Catcher's teenaged protagonist, Holden Caulfield, had already appeared in Salinger's "Slight Rebellion Off Madison", and the novel expands upon the themes of that earlier story. Caulfield was no athletic hero or goody two-shoes; he was a hard-nosed kid of the streets, recently expelled from prep school, and bursting full of attitude, as was apparent from the opening lines: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” The language of Catcher, laced with profanity and sexual innuendo, perfectly captured the streets of New York City, but teachers and librarians of the day felt it was hardly suitable for their young readers. Catcher was an immediate success, going through eight printings in its first two months after its release, and smuggled undercover by countless adolescents during the Fifties and for years thereafter.

Salinger followed this up in 1953 with the critically acclaimed Nine Stories, a collection of short stories, including his previously published "Bananafish", that showcased his ear for the everyday vernacular of the streets. The author, though, increasingly desired to step away from the limelight. Salinger had embraced Zen Buddhism prior to writing Catcher In The Rye, and spent increasing amounts of time in solitude and meditation. Also in 1953, he moved from New York to a secluded 90 acre property in Cornish, New Hampshire, and slowly withdrew from the world.

At first, Salinger socialized with the Cornish townspeople, especially taking a liking to the local high school students who would come to the author asking for advice. He even allowed one of the students to interview him for the high school newspaper. But after that interview appeared on the editorial page of Cornish's daily paper, Salinger cut off all contact with the high schoolers, and eventually with nearly all the city's residents as well.

After the short story "Hapworth 16, 1924" was published in The New Yorker in 1965, Salinger never had another of his works published. He was frequently rumored to be working on a new novel, but nothing ever surfaced. He refused nearly all requests for interviews, turned down numerous requests to have his works made into Hollywood screenplays, and demanded that his photo be taken off the dust cover of future printings of his books. Increasingly reclusive, it became a noted pastime for tourists to Cornish to see if they could get a glimpse of the author. Salinger's enigmatic image was further complicated by the release of two memoirs, one by his daughter Margaret, the other by Joyce Maynard, an author and Yale student many years his junior with whom he had an affair in 1972. Both painted a picture of an abusive, controlling man far different from the genial figure Salinger had been in his heyday.

John Updike and Philip Roth, among others, have acknowledged their debt to Salinger's work. Despite his virtual disappearance from public view, J.D. Salinger remains notable as an author who broke down barriers, without whom the cultural advances of the later 50's and 60's would have been that much more difficult to achieve.