It's a mystery how A People's History of the United States, which has sold over a million copies and currently sits at number fourteen on the Amazon bestseller list, has become so popular with students, Hollywood types, and academics. It is a book of no original research and no original ideas; a tedious aggregation of American crimes (both real and imagined) and deliberate elisions of inconvenient facts and historical events.
Much of the criticism of Zinn has come from dissenters on the left. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. once remarked that "I don't take him very seriously. He's a polemicist, not a historian." Last year, the liberal historian Sean Wilentz referred to the "balefully influential works of Howard Zinn." Reviewing A People's History in The American Scholar, Harvard University professor Oscar Handlin denounced "the deranged quality of his fairy tale, in which the incidents are made to fit the legend, no matter how intractable the evidence of American history." Socialist historian Michael Kazin judged Zinn's most famous work "bad history, albeit gilded with virtuous intentions."
Zinn wasn't, as Schlesinger correctly said, a historian in any traditional sense. Zinn abjured footnotes (there are a number of quotes in A People's History that I couldn't verify), his books consist of clip jobs, interviews, and recycled material from A People's History, and he was more likely to be found protesting on Boston Common than holding office hours at Boston University. But it is clear that those who have praised his work do so because they appreciate his conclusions, while ignoring his shoddy methodology.
If you're not familiar with Zinn's work or his take on American history, watch this clip narrated inevitably by Viggo Mortensen: