Two great souls departed this world this week. One, Howard Zinn, had a deep and lasting influence on me, and the other, J.D. Salinger, missed me by a decade or two – if only I had discovered him in my youth when I was too much of a nice boy for my own good. These two men shared the greater part of the last century but it is interesting how different, even contrasting, their narratives are.

Howard Zinn was the great historian and activist who with his classic A People’s History of the United States changed the consciousness of a whole generation. After reading him you would never look at history the same way again. A very public figure, inspirational orator, a great orgnaiser who believed in the power of the common people and who did not flinch from speaking truth to power.

J. D. Salinger, on the other hand, was a recluse, an aggressively private person who shunned fame and the world that idolized him. His all-time classic The Catcher in the Rye defined the angst and anger of an era and achieved a sort of cult status.

Both men detested authority, cocked a snook at the establishment and did not have much use for the received wisdom. Of course, I do not know enough about either of them to present even a half-decent study of contrasts about them, nor would I want to. All I want to do here is jot down my thoughts by way of tribute.
JD Salinger
So, Salinger first. I read The Catcher in the Rye at an “advanced” age, even so it had a deep impact on me. I cursed myself for not reading him earlier. The novel is about this teenage character Holden Caulfield who is completely disillusioned with life around him – parents, teachers, education system, social mores. His cynicism, his devil-may-care attitude is infectious, and you completely identify with him as he navigates through a minefield of hypocrisy and pretense around him. If I had read this book when I was gauche and geeky (some would say I still am) teenager some of Holden’s irreverent attitude would have rubbed off of me too.

But having missed the bus, I do not want the young of today to grow up with the same regrets. That is why I always urge whoever would listen to me to read this book. My older son – not fond of books – never even attempted. The younger one did but abandoned it half way through. What the hell is wrong with the teenagers of today! Maybe the world has moved on, the grip of the system is becoming tighter and non-conformism is no longer fashionable. But if you look closely the world and its problems have not changed much. If at all things have only worsened.

It is against this rising tide of authoritarianism Howard Zinn warned us and declared “education can, and should be, dangerous.” I discovered him in the early 1990s along with Noam Chomsky and other famous American dissidents. The irony is that the majority of Americans have never heard about them – which is not the fault of the American people but their mass media which has marginalised all the voices and faces that matter. Such is the power of corporate media and the culture of obedience that it can completely shut out critical thought from public discourse.

Ditto about the real history. The history which A People’s History of the United States promulgates, a history from the point of view of the people, a history in which the people are the actors and agents of change. Zinn rejected the idea of “great men of history.” According to him it is the small acts of millions of people that bring about change. Of course, this subterranean view of history is not new from the Indian perspective. Mahatma Gandhi too believed in the power of the people and successfully mobilised the Indian masses against the British.

Like Gandhi, Zinn was a great believer in “sataygrah” which he interpreted in the American context as civil disobedience. “Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that numbers of people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience. . . Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem,” Zinn writes in one of his articles.
Howard Zinn
Before I came across A People’s History of the United States I had read Chomsky’s Year 501: The Conquest Continues, that was a real eye-opener – not just for its earth-shaking content but also for the fact that such a radical book could even exist in such a go-getting, highly hedonistic culture. That book opened the door for me to the vibrant, albeit marginalised, dissident movement in America. From that moment on I had a new respect for America and its people. I avidly devoured books and articles by these writers and that’s when I came across Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

It should be compulsory reading for all Americans – and people around the world. But guess what, you’ll not find it on the course list of any American school or university. Why? Because it is rejects the official history as seen and written by the rich and the victorious. It unearths details and facts about American history – from the genocide of native Americans to the greed and cruelty of European conquerers, from the exploitation of the poor and working class to the uncontrolled rapacity of the rich, from the bravery and sacrifice of the common people to the manipulation of public purse and policy by the wealthy – that do not sit well with the powers-that-be. It is a subversive book which if read widely can spark a revolution. Maybe it will, someday. Is it any wonder then that the establishment has been quick to denounce it as “revisionist history”?

But Zinn never cared about what the masters and their hangers-on had to say about the book. In the court of public opinion he was already king – the book has sold more than 2 million copies and was famously touted by Matt Damon in the movie “Good Will Hunting”. Recently the book was made into a documentary “The People Speak” by History TV. I’ve yet to watch it. Zinn’s autobiography You can’t be neutral on a moving train is also a compelling read. He comes across as a caring, compassionate man; a teacher who connected with his students and the public in a very special way; an activist who devoted his entire life to the cause of social change and world peace.

This is what Zinn writes in the introduction, “When I became a teacher I could not possibly keep out of the classroom my own experiences. I have often wondered how so many teachers manage to spend a year with a group of students and never reveal who they are, what kind of lives they have led, where their ideas come from, what they believe in, or what they want for themselves, for their students, and for the world.”

They do not make teachers like that anymore, do they?

These two men, Zinn more than Salinger, enriched my life as they did, I’m sure, of millions of others. Thank you. Will end with a verse from P.B. Shelly which Zinn quotes in A People’s History of the United States:

Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquished number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many; they are few!

One comment on “Two heroes: A rebel and a recluse

  • I picked up the book “The Catcher in the Rye” last week and finished reading through it the day J.D. Salinger left us. What a coincidence!
    I have the same regrets as you do about not having read the book in my teens. However, for the kind of character that I was back in those days, I doubt I’d have understood the depth of it then, had I managed to read through it completely in the first place, that is. So, I am not surprised that your teenaged son abandoned it half way through.
    We can all identify with Holden Caulfield at some point or another. And, in some way or another (and I hate to admit it), I believe we can also identify with at least one of the other characters in the book. Though most people grumble about the system, I guess when it’s decision-making time, most of us walk the path that’s well-trodden. Isn’t it easier to succumb to the pressures of the society?
    BTW, I heard it somewhere (haven’t verified it though) that a school teacher who tried to recommend this book to her pupils got the ax. C’est la vie!

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