U.S. Intellectual History Blog

HNN’s Least Credible History Book in Print

HNN has a poll at its site that is intriguing and a kind of extension of Tim’s post on those books that have shaped America.  In this case, though, the list at HNN regards those books that have misshapen views of America.

According to that criteria, I chose Zinn’s book.  Here is the list:

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I didn’t mean to be so coy with my comment, my apologies. I chose Zinn’s book because it is history done poorly but also the kind of history that too often echoes the dangerous and very popular notion that historical causation can be reduced to moral absolutes projected onto material structures. Thus, according to Zinn, while we all know who the good guys are in American history, they consistently lose out to the nefarious forces that he fails to explicate in any rigorous way.

  2. I figured that Zinn’s books was on the list simply due to its sales figures, but instead it is a matter of historical interpretation upon which critics base their opinions concerning its credibility. I personally found the DiLorenzo and Barton books more offensive for their blatant distortions to further their authors’ political agendas. I know it is an online poll and therefore should be treated as such, but I figured that Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s works should have been considered due to plagiarism allegations, and I expected Bellesilles’ Arming America to be on the list both for the political explosiveness of the topic and the severity of the charges of academic fraud. I am not familiar with Menzies’ book, and Bill O’Reilly isn’t a credible author. He doesn’t understand the difference between falafel and loofahs.

    • “Soap ’em with falafel like O’Reilly thought a loofah was.” Das Racist indeed.

  3. Thanks for the clarification. Zinn is not particularly rigorous and can be reductive because of his heavily ideological framework, but I would never put him alongside the other texts in the list. Does Zinn truly distort historical facts? From my viewpoint, Zinn’s reductionism is not a mortal sin–pardon the pun–specially since his ideology is pretty much in full display.

  4. The clincher for me is that Zinn’s book is the only of the bunch to get a plug in a popular movie–Good Will Hunting. The list is contrived, as Brian makes clear with his point. But I do think the suggestion of the list is not without merit. Ambrose plagiarized and Kearns Goodwin was very sloppy,and yet both were fairly narrative historians who did little to advance any particular argument. Perhaps the greatest offender in this regard in Ken Burns who, as many people have said, sentimentalized the Civil War to an extent that one is wistful for it.

    There are truly terrible works of history–and Bill O’Reilly’s disaster has to be counted among them–but those books that couple serious work with serious flaws are the more dangerous to me because they are so effective and influential.

  5. I have no particular brief for Zinn’s book; indeed, I’ve never read it. Still, I get the distinct impression that the act of claiming it is especially bad or harmful is something of an ideological ritual like assuring everybody that you aren’t a Marxist or a follower of Chomsky. A different set of rules are suddenly in play. It’s like the old joke about the black man who dies and goes to heaven. He finds himself in a short line at the pearly gate with two white people in front of him. St. Peter explains to the first one that there is one last test he must pass to be admitted. “Spell cat.” The man spells cat and goes in. The second guy gets the same treatment: “Spell dog.” Of course when the black man’s turn come, St. Peter asks him to spell pneumonia.

  6. Seriously Jim? Have we moved from a mild debate over a few bad history books to parables about playing God? Given the list above, Zinn is the only one with a claim to being close to a historian and that point (not my relationship to Marxism) is what makes his People’s History so crappy. In the end, it hasn’t mattered much what kind of litmus test Zinn’s book has been, if it has been at all, since his book has outsold all the other books on that list.

  7. I’m not putting much weight on my observation, which, as advertised, was just an impression. And I’m reacting more to comments I’ve heard about Zinn outside of this thread than to anything I’ve read here. Zinn obviously makes a lot of people very uncomfortable. I’m reminded of the way that Charles Beard used to be summarily dismissed.

    Many of Zinn critics would reject any book hostile to a triumphalist narrative of American history, but Zinn is also looked down on by presumably non Conservatives in a way that suggests that his populist interpretation of American history might be kosher if only it weren’t written in a book accessible to the general public. I haven’t been in academia for a very long time, however, so maybe things have changed. When I knew a lot of historians, even the lefties had a Tory sensibility. You can write about sex, but it better be in Latin…

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