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Journalist/Historian/Social Activist Harvey Wasserman on How Howard Zinn Changed My Life

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Welcome back to OpEdNews, Harvey. We were all saddened by the death of American historian and social activist Howard Zinn this week. You had a special connection with him. Would you care to tell our readers about it?

Howard Zinn was a mentor to a whole generation of historians and activists, and those who've tried to combine the two, who care about social justice and people's history.

Harvey Wasserman, photo credit:

He was a professor at Boston University when many of us were entering university and grad school in the late 1960s. I had heard of him, of course, and read some of his books with great interest and excitement while I was an undergrad at the University of Michigan (1963-7), and then in graduate school at the U. of Chicago in 1967-8, as the Chicago Convention was about to tear our lives apart.

In 1967 I met Raymond Mungo, who was the feisty, outspoken editor of the B.U. News. Ray was included on a panel at a gathering of student editors in DC with some heavyweights from the Johnson Administration. I was there as Editorial Director of the U of Michigan Daily. During Ray's speech, maybe there were 400 editors there, Ray emotionally demanded LBJ's impeachment due to his prosecution of the Vietnam War. When one of the other panelists, Eugene V. Rostow, dissed Ray's rant and asked smugly of the audience how many would support Johnson's impeachment, only about four of us raised our hands. Ray and I became compadres after that.

Ray and Marshall Bloom, along with the poet Verandah Porche, helped start Liberation News Service. I became the Chicago correspondent and we had a hell of a year supplying articles etc. to the underground press. Ray was close to Howard at B.U. and helped me connect with him. But in 1970, after a spectacular break-up at LNS, fomented in part by the FBI, I found myself in the garage of our newly-formed commune in western Massachusetts. I was born in Boston and had ten aunts and uncles there, including one, George Gloss, who was a wonderfully flamboyant socialist, a great admirer of Howard's, and the owner of the famous Brattle Bookshop on the Common. Our farm was, and still is, 90 minutes west and I would go into town whenever I could to buy books (usually at a buck apiece) from Uncle George.

In my 20-something humility, I had decided to write a "people's" history of the United States and had packed this beautiful little out-building with all these great books, including many of Howard's. I had a funky little record player and would look out the window at hawks circling above "Harvey Hill" across the valley. On one trip into Boston, I did catch one of Howard's lectures, which was just great.

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He was warm, funny, personable and fascinating. And, of course, supremely inspiring. I don't remember, however, if this was before or after I sent him my manuscript. After about a year of writing what I'd intended to be a history of the whole US, I fell definitively into the period between 1860 and 1920. There was something about the clarity of language and power of the conflicts of the time that just took me over, and still captivates me. My hero became Eugene V. Debs, the great Socialist union organizer.

What amazes me in retrospect is that, though Debs was the most famous and best-loved leader at the era, I had been taught absolutely nothing about him throughout my five years of college/graduate school, majoring in history. He appeared in any depth only in the teachings of a handful of "left" historians like Howard Zinn. With Debs in mind, I somehow emerged from the hills with a manuscript approaching 300 double-spaced pages, neatly typed on my wonderful black upright 1920-something Underwood. The working title was the absurdly unhumble A People's History of the United States, 1860-1920.

I sent it to numerous publishers, all of whom told me to never send them anything again. But I did hit a young editor named Sharon Cooke at Harper & Row who took an interest. Meantime, I sent a copy to Howard. He wrote back a lovely note on a single sheet of yellow paper (I still have it) telling me he liked the book and that I should persevere.

Sharon showed the note to Hugh Van Dusen, who was the editor of her division at Harper. Hugh had my manuscript read by an historian at the Unversity of Texas, who told him it was utter crap. But Hugh was a man of generous spirit and knew the value of Howard Zinn. So he told me that if Howard would write an introduction, Harper would take a flier and publish my book. Howard, thankfully, agreed. It was one of the most important moments of my life.

As we were working through the process of getting the manuscript ready for publication, the sales manager at Harper, Irv Levy, told me the title wouldn't work. It was pretentious and old left, he said. It turned out Irv was from Columbus, Ohio, where I grew up, and knew my parents. One day he stuck his head in Sharon's office and said "Harvey Wasserman's History of the United States." I told him it was a ridiculous title. He said (could I make this up?) "Harvey Wasserman, that's the kind of name all you hippies really like."

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Finally, I agreed that if Howard liked the title it would be fine with me. He did, and that was it. After I finished the book, I spent the summer of 1972, when maybe I should've been doing promotion, hitch-hiking across Canada and through the western US. I didn't even know when the book came out. But one evening, I was hanging out in Moe's Bookstore in Berkeley and picked up a copy of Rolling Stone, only to find a HUGE review of the book, by a fellow named Michael Rogers, who to this day I've never met and thus have never been able to thank. He probably reviewed it only because Howard wrote the intro. It was a stunning feeling.

Since then, the book has sold some 30,000 copies. I now own and publish it myself and sell them when I speak. Invariably, people see that Howard wrote the intro and take an interest. Because of that book, I was hired to teach at Hampshire College without even a Master's Degree (though I did get one in 1974) and everything else has followed. My debt to Howard is beyond calculation.

Howard then teamed up with Hugh to write the REAL People's History of the United States. Hugh stayed at Harper for upwards of 50 years, and he and Howard remained great friends. A few years ago, they celebrated the sale of the one millionth copy of A People's History. I'm told now that it's sold a second million. I remain immensely honored to have had even a slight, accidental role in its origins. Every time I see it in a bookstore, it makes me glow. It's a truly great book and has changed the way we all view this nation's history. No matter what happens in the future, that book will stand at the core of how we think about America. Only one person could have written it.

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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