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February 17, 2010

The people’s history

On a starry May night long ago, my brother Bill invited me to camp on a piney Virginia mountaintop and listen to some hillbilly music, drink some moonshine and watch some country cousins grow wild-eyed on banjos and talk in stanzas of wisdom. I didn’t know where we were going, but it turned out to be at the home of Dr. Ralph Stanley, who back in those days hadn’t had his “Man of Constant Sorrow” handsomed up by George Clooney.

Bill isn’t my biological brother, but we’ve been brothers for 30 years, we’ve decided. It’s a common-law thing, according to us, and who else has a say? Anyway, off we went to the mountaintop and pitched our tent and let the mandolins make us feel silly about whatever had been stressing us back at work before we left.

There were about a thousand people on that mountain, and they were a pretty desperate lot because they had been robbed of their land. One company owned all the mineral rights in their entire county, and the people’s livelihoods and culture were dying, being slowly devastated by economic and environmental misery and a new drug cooked up by some geniuses at Purdue Pharma called OxyContin.

I couldn’t shake the desperate look so many of those people had in their eyes. Here’s what else I couldn’t shake: a really bad case of poison ivy. Either jewelweed is not a true remedy for poison ivy, or you have to believe in it for it to work. Either way, I scratched myself raw for the better part of two weeks. I would have resorted to OxyContin, but I didn’t want to donate the rest of my life’s enterprise to Purdue Pharma, so I just scratched like a madman instead.

On the mountain, I met a man who looked at me with those desperate eyes and told me his recipe for getting a perfectly ripe tomato: Wait until it’s good and ripe, then wait two more days before you pick it, then put it on the dashboard of your car and park it in the hot summer sun for a day, and then it’s ready.

That same mountain man also told me this: “You can never really know America until you’ve read ‘Leaves of Grass’ by Walt Whitman and ‘A People’s History of the United States’ by Howard Zinn, and I wouldn’t risk reading one without the other.” I liked that advice better, so I went home and read both books, and they changed my life forever.

When J.D. Salinger and Howard Zinn died on the same day in January, everybody had stories about Salinger — and rightly so — but there wasn’t a lot of talk about Zinn. That’s too bad considering he was one of the most important American writers, because, like Salinger, he kept it real.

His masterpiece, “People’s History,” tells the story of America not from the point of view of über-capitalists and warriors for Jesus and bombs bursting in air and the greatest generation and sailing the ocean blue in 1492, but from the point of view of the people. The people, who’ve had their land stolen and their civil rights denied and their money robbed and the deck stacked against them by the privileged class for two centuries and counting. Exactly like the people Bill and I met on Ralph Stanley’s mountain.

Most impressive about Zinn’s work is how readable it is. Whether he is writing about the struggles of Native Americans, women, African-Americans, immigrants, the working poor, or other downtrodden people, the writing is sharp and the people’s voices are loud and clear. It is a Columbus-to-Dubya history book you can read from beginning to end and stay engaged. But it’s too painful to read all by itself, so that’s why you need the Whitman — to cut Zinn’s potency. You need a little nature to go with the nurture.

Magically, Zinn’s exposure of our imperialistic, abusive, exploitative America made me somehow fonder of our country. Instead of hiding from our history, Zinn teaches that we can overcome our past and find ways to make America better. And, for all its warts, America is the place that created a culture that accepts the freedom of expression that makes it possible for a man like Zinn to not only write books about all those warts but to have those books read by millions of people. That’s a wonderful thing to bring down from the mountain.