One name I never expected to hear come from Donald Trump’s mouth during the last election was that of Howard Zinn. Had the former president really ever heard of the radical historian who died in 2010 even as he excoriated the late Boston University icon for trying to make “students ashamed of their own history”? Or had one of his speechwriters summoned Zinn’s name from the dead to drive terror into the souls of suburban women?
I had actually been thinking of my old teacher and friend lately — Zinn, not Trump. He would certainly be in the Top Five of people who provided a moral and ethical base for how to live my life, not just because of his political stands but because of his courage, decency, supreme intelligence and — what isn’t that well-known — his great sense of humor.
It has struck me — and no doubt Trump’s speechwriter — how much of today’s political dialogue springs from Zinn’s writing, particularly "A People’s History of the United States." Zinn wasn’t the first person to write about European colonialism as a form of white supremacy — the genocide of Indigenous people by Spanish “explorers” like Christopher Columbus; the wars against Native Americans; slavery; exploitation of Hispanic and Asian immigrants. But “A People’s History” put it all together as an alternative to nationalist narratives in the textbooks we grew up with. Zinn did not teach us to hate America or to be ideologues; he taught us to put ideology and nationalism aside and see American history for what it was, the bad along with the good.
Zinn wasn’t merely a radical historian, though he was proudly that. His classes introduced me to Saint Augustine, Machiavelli, Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud as well as Karl Marx and Herbert Marcuse. (He also taught me how to pronounce the philosopher’s name — "Nietzsche is peachy.") I got to know him in the ‘60s when I was editor of the BU News, which itself was a radical newspaper. I excerpted a chapter of his defense of civil disobedience, “Disobedience and Democracy: Nine Fallacies on Law and Order” in the BU News, which was put out of business after I had graduated by Zinn’s nemesis, John Silber, the authoritarian president of BU. He hated Zinn not so much for talking the talk but for walking the walk — marching with BU workers when they went on strike, for example.
We had pretty much fallen out of communication, though, as my interest in politics waned after graduation and I spent much of the ‘70s in slacker mode. But I came out of that phase eventually and by the ‘80s I was assistant living-arts editor at the Boston Globe. After I saw Warren Beatty’s “Reds,” I was looking for someone to write a piece about the real John Reed and the accuracy of the movie. Who better than Howard Zinn? (Zinn did not sign the freelance agreement with the Globe so you can’t see his articles on the Globe site, but you can read his excellent piece here.)
From the ‘80s onward, I was more a left-leaning pragmatist than radical leftist, but Howard was still a valued mentor in the left-leaning part of my brain and I think he was intrigued by my more pragmatic path with the Globe so we started to meet for lunch on an increasingly regular basis for the next 30 years, most often in Harvard Square at either the Red House (his favorite) or Casablanca (mine).
We would talk about the media, certainly, and I would agree that there was a push to the center. Even at the liberal Globe radical columnists like Randolph "Ry" Ryan and David Deitch would wear out their welcome. But he would concede that I was right in taking issue with his friend Noam Chomsky’s theories about the media, that since Vietnam the media, particularly the Times or Globe, would not suppress a story of malfeasance in Central America, for example.
He’d be complimentary about my media coverage when I became television critic, particularly when I trashed someone like Oliver North. He wasn’t happy, though, when I wrote about how good John Silber was in the 1990 gubernatorial debates. And he couldn’t fathom why I was so fond of network shows like “St. Elsewhere” and “Miami Vice.”
There was more commonality when I became theater critic in the mid-‘90s. Zinn loved the theater and, in fact, was a playwright himself — a decidedly political playwright, of course. Among his plays were “Emma” (about Emma Goldman), "Daughter of Venus" (centering on nuclear disarmament) and “Marx in Soho” (hint, it wasn’t about Groucho), each achieving some success though the overt politics bothered a number of critics.
My own attitude was that theater doesn’t have to be one thing or another and that these were good examples of political drama. But I did consider Howard a friend — a pre-existing condition to my becoming theater critic — so I recused myself from reviewing his plays. My rule of thumb is to never review a person or work to whom I couldn’t give a bad review.
He himself was a pretty tough critic and a wry debater. At Casablanca one day, he was taking me a bit to task in front of a couple of his friends for a positive review of American Repertory Theater artistic director Robert Brustein’s “Nobody Dies on Friday,” a takedown of method acting pioneer Lee Strasberg. (Marilyn Monroe was an offstage character.) Zinn asked me why I liked it and I gave what I thought was a smart defense of Brustein’s themes centering on the seductiveness of popular culture.
Zinn looked upwards and to the side, so there was a moment when I thought his silence meant I had carried the day. He said, “Yeah,” as if he were about to agree with me, before cocking his head, giving me a pitiful look and saying, “Nice try, Ed.” The four of us burst out laughing and even if it hadn’t been the most intellectual comeback on his part there was no point in pressing the point further.
He was also a raconteur with terrific comic timing, telling me that he had gone to the old Harvard Square Theater and had given his ticket to the usher. He recounted, “The ticket taker asked me, ‘Howard Zinn?' and I answered ‘Yes I am.’ He looked at me like I was crazy and said, ‘Theater One.’ I finally figured out that he had actually said to me, ‘Howard’s End,’ the movie we had come to see.”
Zinn asked me when I became theater critic if I had heard of his son’s theater company, the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater or W.H.A.T. I told him I had been planning to check it out during the coming summer.
While I didn’t review friends’ work I did think their families were fair game as long as I could give them a bad review if I didn’t like the work. Actually, I generally liked Jeff’s aesthetic more than Howard did. Zinn père was an Arthur Miller man. He wanted social conscience and people you could root for. Zinn fils was more of a Martin McDonagh and Sam Shepard man. The first play I saw there was Shepard’s "Simpatico," which had never been done in Boston. (I think it still hasn’t.)
I loved the production and everything about the W.H.A.T. vibe. The Boston scene, when I started to review it in the mid-‘90s, was, for the most part, a bore after you got past the A.R.T. and the Huntington Theatre Company. I started writing pieces about how Wellfleet and the four Berkshire theaters had what Boston was lacking — a vibrant and adventurous small and midsize theater scene.
(Boston theater has markedly improved over the last 25 years. Meanwhile the old W.H.A.T. space on the harbor is now home to another fine company, the Harbor Stage Company, made up of Jeff Zinn friends who formed their own troupe after he was fired by the W.H.A.T. board. Zinn had also overseen the opening of a larger W.H.A.T. space on Route 6. Long story.)
But even if the likes of Martin McDonagh and other edgy playwrights weren’t to Howard’s liking, he and his wonderful wife Roz were loyal supporters of their son’s work. Howard did have other less than radical traits. Along with my aunts, he really seemed to want my then-girlfriend Carol and me to get married and he even lobbied for the officiant — Rev. Jack Smith, who was BU Episcopal chaplain in the ‘60s and had moved to Wellfleet. And indeed Jack did preside, noting that he was an Episcopalian priest performing the service in a Unitarian church under a huppa. At the reception, I remember a number of people coming up to me and shaking my hand and, as soon as they could do so more or less politely, asking where they could find Howard Zinn.
Meanwhile, our Harvard Square lunches continued until his death in 2010. He was as excited as I would have been meeting Bob Dylan, who performed "Do Re Mi" for “The People Speak,” a televised adjunct to “People’s History.” “He was very approachable,” said Zinn. “I went up to him and thanked him for performing. He gave me a big smile and a fist bump and said, ‘Thank you for the book.’"
And I still have conversations with Howard. What would I tell him about why I liked McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri” or "Hangmen"? We had a long talk about why I thought the W.H.A.T. production of "Pillowman" was so good and why he disliked the play as much as he did, though he did love the theater’s famous production of McDonagh's “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” with Julie Harris. I also wonder whether he would have embraced today’s woke theater. And I imagine he would have excoriated me for supporting Joe Biden in the Democratic primaries as the person with the best shot of beating Trump instead of getting behind Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.
It might have been at our last lunch when I told him that I had experienced a bout of vertigo. “What do they do for that?” he asked. I said that they have this thing called the Epley Maneuver where they try to get the crystals in your ear back in place by repositioning your brain. As with the Brustein comment, he looked off to the side, cocked his head and said, “Well, Ed," he paused for effect, "I can only hope it was to the left.” If it was, he certainly had a helping hand.