Howard Zinn, a maverick historian whose landmark leftist manifesto "A People's History of the United States" became a cultural touchstone for a generation, died on Wednesday in Santa Monica, California, at the age of 87. He suffered a heart attack, according to the Boston Globe.
The Boston University historian and political activist encouraged young Americans to question the status quo in the 1980 book, which went on to sell 2 million copies and provide inspiration to the 1997 Oscar-winning film "Good Will Hunting." Zinn made a cameo in the film in which star Matt Damon's character urges his teacher, played by Robin Williams, to read "A People's History." The plug was not coincidental, as Damon, who co-wrote the script, was a neighbor of Zinn's growing up.
"Howard had a great mind and was one of the great voices in the American political life," "Hunting" co-star Ben Affleck, also a family friend of the author, said in a statement. "He taught me how valuable — how necessary — dissent was to democracy and to America itself. He taught that history was made by the everyman, not the elites. I was lucky enough to know him personally, and I will carry with me what I learned from him — and try to impart it to my own children — in his memory."
A televised documentary based on the book, called "The People Speak," aired in 2009. The film was narrated by Damon and featured readings and performances by Eddie Vedder, Bob Dylan, Lupe Fiasco, Josh Brolin, Viggo Mortensen, Danny Glover, Pink, Morgan Freeman, Benjamin Bratt, Darryl "DMC" McDaniels, Marisa Tomei, Bruce Springsteen and John Legend.
According to The New York Times, Springsteen has said that his bleak 1982 acoustic album, Nebraska, full of stories of average, hardworking Americans whose lives are lived at the margins, was partly inspired by "A People's History." Zinn's speeches and works were issued on CD and vinyl by the independent record label Alternative Tentacles, founded by former Dead Kennedys singer Jello Biafra, another longtime admirer.
Zinn's books and many speeches promoted dissent and spoke of the power of protest, encouraging a view of American history "from the ground up" and setting aside the story of America told only through the eyes of presidents, generals and power players and through traditional textbooks. "A People's History" heaped praise on Vietnam War resisters, feminists and labor leaders, while accusing Christopher Columbus and other early explorers of committing genocide, positing the notion that racism was created to enforce the American economic system and that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II were unnecessary.
The professor was born in New York City on August 24, 1922, the son of Jewish immigrants Edward Zinn, a waiter, and housewife Jennie Zinn. He served as a bombardier in World War II, entering New York University on the GI Bill after the war and eventually earning master's and doctoral degrees in history from Columbia University. While serving as chairman of the history department at the traditionally black women's institution Spelman College in the 1950s, he became active in the civil rights movement and participated in a number of demonstrations with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, later emerging as a major voice against the Vietnam War.
"He's made an amazing contribution to American intellectual and moral culture," said fellow left-wing activist Noam Chomsky. "He's changed the conscience of America in a highly constructive way. I really can't think of anyone I can compare him to in this respect."