Alan Michael Collinge: The Way Forward on Student Loans
Marian Wright Edelman on Howard Zinn

Helene Atwan: The Loss of Howard Zinn

Helene Atwan is the director of Beacon Press.

 photo by Robert Birnbaum
The death of Howard Zinn is an irreparable loss. His contributions to how history is viewed and taught, to political discourse, to activism will be celebrated in the coming weeks and months by the legions of people who were influenced by his work and by his example. Already some of those encomia are being published and posted; the list below represents only a sampling. I want to say just a little today about his enormous contribution to Beacon Press and to independent publishing.

Howard's first book with Beacon was SNCC: The New Abolitionists, the story of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee which he advised for many years, and which we published in 1964. It was his second book. It began a 46 year relationship with the press that was virtually uninterrupted. We didn't publish all of his books, of course, or all of the books he championed over the years, but we were proud to publish quite a few, including Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal and You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train, his memoir. His last book, Three Plays: The Political Theater of Howard Zinn, was slated for publication in April 2010. Receiving his advanced copies just two weeks ago Howard wrote: "Hot off the press; looks great!" As always, he thanked us for our work. And, as always, we were the ones who owed him the thanks.

In addition to his contributions to Beacon, Howard published books and advised a multitude of other independent presses, including Seven Stories, South End, The New Press and City Lights. He cared deeply about books, and about publishing houses. He was also a great mentor, often recommending students, constantly forwarding interesting proposals or manuscripts. And, inevitably, because he was perhaps too generous, he supported the books he championed by writing a blurb or even a foreword. We joked that we would one day publish his collected forewords in three volumes.

At one of the performances for "The People Speak" in Boston, after a tremendous round of applause greeted his arrival, Howard deadpanned, "Let's not exaggerate." Three weeks ago I had lunch with Howard and Kate Snodgrass of the Boston Playwright's Theater to discuss a launch event for his new book. We ate at Legal Seafood because we could share Wellfleet oysters there-- Howard took glee in proclaiming "his" oysters the sine qua non, and liked them with Tabasco. That was a fairly new development in our routine; for years we'd been meeting in "red" restaurants, like Boston's Red Fez or the Red House in Cambridge, largely because we could joke about being so. . . red. Howard loved to poke fun at himself, at how famous he was, and how seriously everyone was taking him. He was a very serious man who never could play it straight for too long-- unless he was angry. And he was angry about injustice, about war mongering, about abuses of power and he wrote with such passion about these things, as everyone well knows.

But so often in person, it was his passion for the many things he loved, and the many people he loved, that carried the day. He always had books to recommend, films, music, and places to visit, but above all people. I've never known anyone who had such a large circle of devoted friends, and who was such a good friend to so many, including, I'm proud to say, to me. He told me a story I relished, about walking with Viggo Mortensen on the way to one of the live performances for "The People Speak," when a young woman leapt out of the line waving a camera, which she handed to the movie star, asking if he would mind snapping a shot of her with the historian. He found that hilarious. Yet for so many people across at least three generations, the historian will remain a rock star, a man who changed the course of history by retelling it. A man who touched all those who were lucky enough to know him and literally millions who came to know him through his invaluable work. I will miss him terribly, and feel very privileged to have known him. His importance cannot be exaggerated.