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Remembering Salinger and Zinn

David Markus

Former Editorial Director of Edutopia; dad of 4 (3 kids in public school)
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Some folks say deaths come in threes.

That makes me nervous. What with the passing yesterday and today of two great men of letters -- historian Howard Zinn and novelist J.D. Salinger -- I don't want to look at tomorrow's obits.

Salinger catapulted millions of us who came of novel-reading age in the '50s and '60s into the wide, wondrous world of fiction. After turning the last page of Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, I was a changed young man. Reading became an adventure like no other. Holden Caulfield (and his stormy journey into adolescence) became my Columbus, my ticket to a whole new world of emotional knowledge and inspiration.

Zinn changed us with his writing of history. His ground-breaking volume The Politics of History, and then, ten years later, his classic A People's History of the United States literally upended any semblance of status quo in conventional interpretations of American history.

Suddenly, the searchlight of truth shone on workers and slaves, women and immigrants, highlighting the black, white, red, yellow, and brown hues of our people. And even if some the facts and deeds Zinn recounted were shocking and shameful, his telling of the story somehow made you authentically proud to be a citizen in a place where people strive, however imperfectly, for greater justice.

Here are some links to information about the lives of and the work of these two remarkable men:

"J.D. Salinger, Literary Recluse, Dies at 91" (New York Times)

"Of Teen Angst and an Author's Alienation" (New York Times)

Howard Zinn's Web site

"Howard Zinn, Historian, Is Dead at 87" (New York Times)

How did these great minds change you? Please share your thoughts.

-- David Markus, Edutopia editorial director

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David Markus

Former Editorial Director of Edutopia; dad of 4 (3 kids in public school)

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Rebecca Alber's picture
Rebecca Alber
Edutopia Consulting Editor

Howard Zinn's "You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train" changed how I viewed my work in the classroom when I read it my 2nd year teaching. Those pages opened my eyes and gave permission for me to merge my activist self with my teacher self. For that, I will forever be in debt to Zinn. What a hero.

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Edcamper, Former @Edutopia, Founder of Social Media Marketing Consultancy aimed at helping educational orgs.

I remember reading Zinn's "A People's History" when I was in high school and it dramatically reshaped the way I thought about American history. It's also one of the only books I have that I like to read every couple of years. I can even remember a time when I took it with me on a surfing trip to Baja and read it cover to cover. People thought I was nuts!

After reading "A People's History," I shortly came across his work "Howard Zinn on War," a collection of essays on various wars throughout history. If you haven't read this, I recommend you do. It's very powerful stuff. I loved this book so much that it was the only book I took with me when I backpacked Australia.

Not only has Zinn changed my perspective on history, his works have also been a part of my adventures!

CarlyIM's picture
I am a school librarian at an elementary school in North Minneapolis.†

I don't know what it is, but when an author I've enjoyed has passed it truly is like losing a member of my family. I'm still not over the passing of Frank McCourt. Of course many great authors leave a bit of their own soul in every book, so a reader who is paying attention really does get to know who they are. I think this is very obvious in the case of J.D. Salinger. I wasn't actually a fan of Catcher in the Rye (teen angst was much more accepted in the late 90s, though) but loved his short stories and especially Franny and Zooey.

Suzie Boss's picture
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate

I was lucky enough to "find" Catcher in the Rye on my own, in my high school library, and was also changed by it. As a young reader (9th grade), I was greedy for more--and I can still see the look on the librarian's face when I asked her why I couldn't find more novels from this amazing author. When she told me about Salinger being in recluse mode, I recalled a line of Holden's: "Nobody kept answering..."
Thanks for kindling the memories.

Binibining Diwa's picture
Binibining Diwa
English teacher and writer for teacher's magazine, La Union, Philippines

As a college student, I attended a lecture on Young Adult Literature and how "Catcher in the Rye" was considered by many as the first breakthrough novel of this genre. Salinger was on to something then, and the novel is great reading for not only teens dealing with mixed up emotions and pressures like Holden but also for teachers who are dealing with adolescents. I read it finally late last year, and it might have been written by a teenager of present day. I was an emotionally lost teenager myself in high school, and I wish I had been asked to read "Catcher" in class.

Forrest's picture

Howard Zinn and J.D. Salinger were two huge influences on how I view my world and also truly changed my thinking.
In high school, I was given The Cather in the Rye by my father. He told me something like, "if you are going to be grumpy and full of teen angst then learn from the best." I threw the book into the corner of my bedroom until one snowy winter's morning. When I read TCTR I was amazed at how Mr. Salinger had been able to write down all the angry and contempt and love that I was feeling at that time way back in the late 1940's. I felt like that maybe I was not the first person to be upset as a teenager. I also really wanted to know what "a high-ball" was. I loved this book and it was not only entertaining but exhilarating to read such good writing. This book made me want to be able to write better.
In college, as a history major, I was assigned "A People's History," as a text to read. Once again I was sucked into amazing writing and something that made me reorganize my ideas of the world. Suddenly, I knew why I didn't enjoy most of my history textbooks but enjoyed my higher level history classes. I saw how most History in school is about the Old, Rich, White men in control. "A People's History" was a view to what was closer to the truth about history. Howard Zinn, showed me that to be truly brave is to question what the authorities are telling you.
I am forever grateful to both these men.

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Edcamper, Former @Edutopia, Founder of Social Media Marketing Consultancy aimed at helping educational orgs.

YES Magazine just sent a link in their enews about The Zinn Education Project (

Looks fairly interesting -- if anyone's tried it - please share!

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