On the significance of J.D. Salinger and Howard Zinn.

>> Thursday, January 28, 2010

Learning that J.D. Salinger died a day after learning that Howard Zinn had qualifies as a sufficiently surreal experience for that type of person who very much resembles me. Catcher in the Rye taught me how to channel my anger into antisocial behaviors—reading books in my bedroom foremost among them—but as I read it with the same critical acumen that led me to wear out not one but two VHS copies of Pump Up the Volume, the less I say about the book the better. (That and it violates the Five Year Rule three times over.)

Within two years of reading Salinger, I'd affected all the trappings of The Young Punk Who Would Be Vegan and read A People's History of the United States, but unlike Salinger's novel, Zinn's history resonated with me until my sophomore year of college, when I was disabused of its importance by the man himself. I had attended a lecture of his and somehow weaseled my way into a dinner that followed. I told him how significant A People's History had been to my political and intellectual development and that I had read it four or five times and that I was about to start it again when he stopped me short:

"My little book has served its purpose," he told me. "Perhaps it's time you started on the bibliography."

He smiled and was about to say something else when he was whisked away by some other sycophant eager to bend his ear, but after talking to other people who had very similar conversations with him, I think I know what he was going to say: namely, that his "little book" was meant more as a point of departure than a destination. Treating it the way Matt Damon's Good Will Hunting character did (and every newly-minted hipster firebrand does) violates the spirit of its polemic, because the book isn't meant to replace traditional histories so much as supplement them.

For example, if the significance of the Christian tradition is given short-shrift in the book, it isn't because that tradition's unimportant to the development of the nation, but because a robust canon addressing that issue already exists. Zinn never intended his book to be an education in itself, but many readers—especially non-serious ones involved in any of a variety of Zinn-friendly scenes—inflated its importance until it became the definitive source for the entirety of American history. The extensive bibliography in the back-pages indicates that it had no pretensions of being anything of the sort.

I could prattle on about its faults—foremost among them, Zinn's subscription to a dualism so powerful and pervasive that his accounts of internecine conflicts on the left border on unintelligible—but it is impossible to deny the attraction the book has for young adults whose knowledge of American history comes from the skeletal outlines of a public education. The simplicity of its dualistic worldview appeals to the adolescent in the first throes of rebellion because that worldview is itself adolescent. That sounds like an insult, but I mean it in the same sense that Zinn meant what he said to me: A People's History represents a stage in one's intellectual development.

It was never intended to arrest it.


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