I FELL IN LOVE with Holden Caulfield the first time I read The Catcher in the Rye in the mid ‘80s. A year or so later I read it in my high school English class and concluded (disappointingly and with my teacher’s help) that he was a narcissistic wimp. When his creator, the enigmatic J. D. Salinger, died on the same day as renowned historian and activist Howard Zinn (January 27, 2010) it was hard not to attempt to draw some kind of connection between the two men’s anti-establishment ethos, especially for those of us who’d been strongly influenced by their work.
Ron Briley, himself embodying a kind of connection as both a history teacher and the assistant headmaster at an Albuquerque prep school, put it most eloquently in a piece published February 1 by the History News Network. In “Thank You, Howard Zinn,” Briley writes that Salinger and Zinn “represent, respectively, alienation and activism. It is the activism and vision of Zinn that is required to achieve the goals of domestic reform and peace envisioned by Barack Obama in his 2008 presidential campaign. Unfortunately, we seem as a nation to have fallen into the trap of alienation embraced by Salinger’s Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye.”
Salinger’s writing talent and ability to capture adolescent angst in America is unquestionable, and stories have emerged of the famously reclusive writer as a familiar member of his Cornish, New Hampshire community. However, it is Zinn’s truth seeking and civic activism that is most closely tied to humanism and to this issue of the Humanist, in which David Swanson explores the state of activism in the United States and how we can improve it; David Niose tackles Antonin Scalia’s anti-humanist agenda; and Heather Augustyn celebrates Kurt Vonnegut’s freethinker roots on the third anniversary of that great sage’s death.
Howard Zinn first appeared in these pages in 1970, discussing the need for liberals to re-establish a new and vital radical center (see excerpts here) and also contributed several times in the early ‘90s and once more in a book foreword in the last issue. He will always be remembered most for his 1980 book, A People’s History of the United States, that chronicles the struggles of oppressed peoples previously ignored in history texts and which has sold, by some accounts, over two million copies.
As someone who championed the notion that dissent is the highest form of patriotism, Zinn also expressed a genuine belief in transcendence, alternative futures, and the beauty of empowerment. In a recent video interview series on Big Think.com, Zinn was asked how he’d like to be remembered and responded: “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 ultimately rests in people themselves and that they can use it. At certain points in history, they have used it. Black people in the South used it. People in the women’s movement used it. People in the anti-war movement used it. People in other countries who have overthrown tyrannies have used it.” He concluded by saying that he wanted to be remembered as “somebody who gave people a feeling of hope and power that they didn’t have before.” Well done, Mr. Zinn—this is exactly how we will remember you.
Jennifer Bardi is the editor of the Humanist.