• Robert Birnbaum

Paul Buhle: A People's Historian

Paul Buhle (illustration/Steve Chappell)

University of Wisconsin alumnus Paul Buhle has edited /authored nearly 40 books. He launched the Students for a Democratic Society's journal, Radical America and The Oral History of the American Left (located at The Tamiment Library at New York University) and with Mari Jo Buhle, is coeditor of the Encyclopedia of the American Left. Formerly Senior Lecturer at Brown University and Buhle continues adding to hIs substantial and useful body of work. His two latest publications are graphic biographies featuring socialist Eugene Victor Debs and philosopher Herbert Marcuse.

Considering the long standing demonization of progressive political thought and social and economic justice initiatives, by you-know-who, the current movement to revitalize notions of 'socialism' , income equality , universal healthcare, attention to real climactic conditions and, most importantly, understanding the legitimate role of government. not only make Paul Buhle's recent opuses vitally important but add to. if I may, an 'oeuvre' makes entertainingly accessible parts of US History and some of its less heralded actors that you-know-who don't want you to read....

Eugene V. Debs: A Graphic Biography by Paul Buhle, Steve Max, et al.

"Dynamic and beloved American radical, labor leader, and socialist Eugene Victor Debs led the Socialist Party to federal and state office across the United States by the 1920s. Imprisoned for speaking out against World War I, Debs ran for president from prison on the Socialist Party ticket, receiving over 1 million votes. Debs’s life is a story of labor battles in industrializing America, of a fighting socialist politics grown directly out of the Midwest heartland, and of a distinctly American vision of socialism."

Martha Sonnenberg writing for Tikkun observes:

"This graphic biography cannot be, nor does it attempt to be, a complete history of socialism, or of Debs. For that complete and more complex history, readers should turn to the classic Debs biography by Ray Ginger, The Bending Cross, or the more recent biography by Nick Salvatore, Eugene V. Debs:Citizen and Socialist. The power of graphics and cartoons is their ability to, as Art Spiegelman puts it, “essentialize” topics...." 

Herbert Marcuse, Philosopher of Utopia: A Graphic Biography by Paul Buhle (Editor), Andrew Lamas (Editor), Nick Thorkelson (Illustrator), Angela Y. Davis

"Herbert Marcuse was one of the twentieth century’s most unlikely pop stars: a celebrity philosopher. In the 1960s, his argument for a “principled utopianism” catalyzed the idealism of a rebellious generation, and Marcuse became an intellectual guide for activists and revolutionaries around the world. ...Marcuse’s concept of a "Great Refusal"—the protest against that which is—is a guide for our times."

In a review of the Great Refusal: Herbert Marcuse and Contemporary Social Movements. Edited by Andrew T. Lamas, Buhle opines:

"We are, the 1960s radical generation, now once more marching, marching, sometimes it seems mostly with the Millennials by our side.  And here comes the ghost of Herbert Marcuse, who was so much with us the first time around.

It is a truism that Marcuse has been going in and out of style (at any rate, public attention) since well before his death in 1979. Indeed, he only came into style, as a widely recognized, beloved and despised, figure during the later 1960s, with the rise of the global New Left. Conservatives and grumpy liberals—clearly displaced in attention by someone to theirLeft and worse, someone who supported young people’s movements—viewed the refugee intellectual entering late middle age as a veritable public menace. “Ma-Ma-Ma,” that is, “Marx-Mao-Marcuse,” a conglomerate monster, Marcuse himself became a third of the mocking phrase meant to ridicule young people’s idols as babyish, immature, the youngsters themselves incapable of recognizing really important intellectuals and the obligation to protect American credibility amidst the War in Vietnam."

Below are highlights of some of Paul Buhle's books *

Jews and American Popular Culture [3 volumes] by Paul Buhle (Author)

This is all star lineup of scholars, authors, and journalists examines the contributions of the Jewish people to American culture, from film, food, and fiction to television, music, sports, and humor [ it includes a never-before published comic strip by Harvey Pekar (whose life was featured in the film American Splendor)], This definitive, comprehensive three-volume set represents the first-ever work of its kind.

"Since they first began arriving in the United States in large numbers at the end of the 19th century, Jewish Americans have played a significant role in shaping American culture. The influence of the Jewish people is deeply and richly felt in many realms, including art, literature, politics, humor, and sports, to name just a few. The American film industry was pioneered by the likes of Adolph Zukor, Harry Cohn, and Jack Warner. Tin Pan Alley and Broadway sparkled with the creativity of George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and Stephen Sondheim. Where would rock 'n' roll be without Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, and the Beastie Boys? Jews and American Popular Culture examines the influence of a highly creative and resilient people who have flourished despite the myriad forms anti-Semitism has taken since their earliest arrival.

Chapters explore topics across a range of time periods and genres, including assimilation, stereotypes, and the Holocaust. In addition to examining the works of such compelling figures as Woody Allen, Philip Roth, Hank Greenberg, the Three Stooges, Allen Ginsberg, Wendy Wasserstein, and Ann Landers, a team of unparalleled scholars explains how a comparatively small, initially underprivileged group of people managed to overcome great odds and wield wide-ranging influence on contemporary culture. Shut out of more traditional fields, Jews in the final decades of the 19th century and the opening decades of the 20th century embraced the new technologies of film, radio, and television, as well as new industries and areas of commerce, from the department store to novelty toy distribution. What resulted is an American culture shaped by a resilient minority population. From Betty Boop to Barbie, from The Honeymooners to Friends, the creative spirit of American Jews defines our culture." American Splendor

Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg by Kate Evans (Author), Paul Buhle (Editor)

"A giant of the political left, Rosa Luxemburg is one of the foremost minds in the canon of revolutionary socialist thought. But she was much more than just a thinker. She made herself heard in a world inimical to the voices of strong-willed women. She overcame physical infirmity and the prejudice she faced as a Jew to become an active revolutionary whose philosophy enriched every corner of an incredibly productive and creative life—her many friendships, her sexual intimacies, and her love of science, nature and art. Always opposed to the First World War, when others on the German left were swept up on a tide of nationalism, she was imprisoned and murdered in 1919 fighting for a revolution she knew to be doomed."


Bohemians: A Graphic History by Paul Buhle (Editor), David Berger (Editor)

"The nineteenth-century countercultures that came to define the bohemian lifestyle spanned both sides of the Atlantic, ranging from Walt Whitman to Josephine Baker, and from Gertrude Stein to Thelonius Monk. Bohemians is the graphic history of this movement and its illustrious figures, recovering the utopian ideas behind millennial communities, and covering the rise of Greenwich Village, the multiracial and radical jazz world, and West Coast and Midwest bohemians, among other scenes.Drawn by an all-star cast of comics artists, including rising figures like Sabrina Jones, Lance Tooks, and Summer McClinton, alongside established artists like Peter Kuper and Spain Rodriguez, Bohemians is a broad account of the rebel impulse in American cultural history.and features illustrations by Spain Rodriguez, Sharon Rudahl, Peter Kuper,  Sabrina Jones, David Lasky, Afua Richardson, Lance Tooks, Milton Knight, and others."

Wobblies!: A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World by Paul Buhle (Author), Nicole Schulman (Author)

"The IWW (International Workers of the World), which has been organizing workers since 1905, is often cited yet elusive to scholars because of its eclectic and controversial cultural and social character. Wobblies! presents the IWW whole, scripted and drawn by old-time and younger Wobbly and IWW-inspired artists.

[Includes ]The stories of the hard-rock miners’ shooting wars, young Elizabeth Gurly Flynn (the “Rebel Girl” of contemporary sheet music), the first sit-down strikes and Free Speech fights, Emma Goldman and the struggle for birth control access, the Pageant for Paterson orchestrated in Madison Square Garden, bohemian radicals John Reed and Louise Bryant, field-hand revolts and lumber workers’ strikes, wartime witch hunts, government prosecutions and mob lynching, Mexican-American uprisings in Baja, and Mexican peasant revolts led by Wobblies, hilarious and sentimental songs created and later revived."

Studs Terkel's Working: A Graphic Adaptation by Harvey Pekar (Author), Paul Buhle (Editor)

"Pulitzer Prize-winner Studs Te, those who were mad to live have come back to life through artwork as vibrant as the Beat movement itself. Told by Harvey Pekar, his frequent artistic collaborator Ed Piskor, and a range of artists and writers, including the feminist comic creator Trina Robbins and the g, Pekar offers a brilliant visual adaptation ofThe Beats verbatim interviews, collaborating with both established comics veterans and some of the comic underground's brightest new talent. Here are riveting accounts of the lives of ordinary Americans--farmers, miners, barbers, hookers, box boys, stockbrokers--depicted with unsurpassed dignity and frankness. "

The Beats: A Graphic History by Harvey Pekar (Author), Paul Buhl, 201e (Editor), Ed Piskor (Illustrator)

"In The Beats: A Graphic History, those who were mad to live have come back to life through artwork as vibrant as the Beat movement itself. Told by the comic legend Harvey Pekar, his frequent artistic collaborator Ed Piskor, and a range of artists and writers, including the feminist comic creator Trina Robbins and the Madmagazine artist Peter Kuper, The Beatstakes us on a wild tour of a generation that, in the face of mainstream American conformity and conservatism, became known for its determined uprootedness, aggressive addictions, and startling creativity and experimentation.

What began among a small circle of friends in New York and San Francisco during the late 1940s and early 1950s laid the groundwork for a literary explosion, and this striking anthology captures the storied era in all its incarnations―from the Benzedrine-fueled antics of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs to the painting sessions of Jay DeFeo's disheveled studio, from the jazz hipsters to the beatnik chicks, from Chicago's College of Complexes to San Francisco's famed City Lights bookstore. Snapshots of lesser-known poets and writers sit alongside frank and compelling looks at the Beats' most recognizable faces."

A People's History of American Empire by Howard Zinn (Author), Mike Konopacki (Author),

"Since its landmark publication in 1980, A People's History of the United Stateshas had six new editions, sold more than 2 million copies, become required classroom reading throughout the country, and been turned into an acclaimed play. More than a successful book, A People's History triggered a revolution in the way history is told, displacing the official versions with their emphasis on great men in high places to chronicle events as they were lived, from the bottom up.

Now Howard Zinn, historian Paul Buhle, and cartoonist Mike Konopacki have collaborated to retell, in vibrant comics form, a most immediate and relevant chapter of A People's History: the centuries-long story of America's actions in the world. Narrated by Zinn, this version opens with the events of 9/11 and then jumps back to explore the cycles of U.S. expansionism from Wounded Knee to Iraq, stopping along the way at World War I, Central America, Vietnam, and the Iranian revolution. The book also follows the story of Zinn, the son of poor Jewish immigrants, from his childhood in the Brooklyn slums to his role as one of America's leading historians."

"This is the throughly revised, updated and expanded edition of a groundbreaking reference source--the most comprehensive guide available to the history of radical and progressive movements in America. More than 600 articles (100 new to this edition) written by 300 leading historians cover key figures, events, issues, organizations, and concepts, from Tom paine to the Black Panther Party."


FDR and the New Deal For Beginners by Paul Buhle (Author), Sabrina Jones (Illustrator), Harvey Pekar (Afterword)

"FDR and the New Deal For Beginners will shed new light upon a story now regaining visibility thanks to the recent economic crisis and prominent reformer, President Obama, in the White House.The history of the precedent-making FDR administration through the bitter economic depression dest social experiment in the history of American democracy. For the first time, the lives of the president, the first lady and the ordinary people of the time will be seen through an inventive comic narrative accompanying historic illustrations and a sympathetic but not uncritical text."

Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman by Sharon Rudahl (Author), Paul Buhle (Editor), Alice Wexler (Foreword)

"A Dangerous Woman depicts the full sweep of a life lived to the hilt in the struggle for equality and justice. Emma Goldman was at the forefront of the radical causes of the twentieth century, from leading hunger demonstrations during the Great Depression—"Ask for work! If they do not give you work, ask for bread! If they do not give you work or bread, take the bread!"—to organizing a cloakmakers' strike, from lecturing on how to use birth control to fighting conscription for World War I, while her soulmate, Alexander Berkman, spent fourteen years in jail for his failed attentat against industrialist Henry Clay Frick."

Sharon Rudahl's lovely, energetic illustrations bring Goldman's many facets and passions to new life; her work belongs with the critically acclaimed graphic nonfiction of Alison Bechdel's Fun Homeand Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis. "

Jews and American Comics: An Illustrated History of an American Art Formb y Paul Buhle

"Readers have long cherished the work of comic masters such as Will Eisner, Jules Feiffer, and Art Spiegelman, all of whom happen to be Jewish. Few, however, are probably aware that the Jewish role in creating the American comic art form is no less significant than the Jewish influence on Hollywood filmmaking. Filled with the most stunning examples of this vital artistic tradition, Jews and American Comics tells us how the “people of the book” became the people of the comic book.

With three brief essays by Paul Buhle, the well-known historian of American Jewish life, Jews and American Comics offers readers a pictorial backstory tracing Jewish involvement in comic art from several little-known strips in Yiddish newspapers of the early twentieth century through the mid-century origins of the modern comic book and finally to contemporary comic art, which has at last found its place in museums, in private collections, and on the bookshelves of both critics and millions of avid readers.

Featuring more than two hundred examples of the work of Jewish comic artists going back a century—much of which has been unavailable to the general public for decades—this extraordinary collection will be a major contribution to Jewish and American cultural history. Jews and American Comics is also a gorgeous package, sure to be treasured by comic art lovers and fans of Jewish culture—and destined to become the bar and bat mitzvah gift of the decade."

From the Lower East Side to Hollywood: Jews in American Popular Culture by Paul Buhle (Author)

"The contribution by Jews to American popular culture is widely acknowledged yet scarcely documented. This is the first comprehensive investigation of the formative Jewish influence upon the rise and development of American popular culture, drawing upon extensive oral histories with several generations of Jewish artists, little-utilized Yiddish scholarship, and the author’s own connections with today’s comic-strip artists. Buhle shows how the rich legacy of Yiddish prepared would-be artists to absorb the cultures of their surrounding environments, seeing the world through the eyes of others, and producing the talent required for theater, films, television, popular music and comics.

Buhle suggests that “premodern” and “postmodern” are arbitrary designations here, because the self-reflective content has always radiated an inner Jewishness. From Sholem Aleichem (who died in the Bronx) to Gertrude Berg, Woody Allen and Tony Kushner, from John Garfield to Roseanne Barr and Rube Goldberg to Cyndi Lauper, the cutting edge is never too far from home and humane antidotes to the pains of a troubled world. Contradictions between Jewish avant-garde and kitsch, mogul and artist, orthodoxy and heresy are given new sense here in the scope of cultural output adopted by ordinary Americans as their own. Illustrated with the work of Harvey Pekar and R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Ben Katchor, Trina Robbins and others, From the Lower East Side to Hollywoodis full of humor and insight into the power of popular art to spark insight and encourage the endless quest for"

Radical Hollywood: The Untold Story Behind America's Favorite Movies by Paul Buhle (Author), David Wagner (Author)

"Radical Hollywood is the first comprehensive history of the Hollywood Left. From the dawn of sound movies to the early 1950s, Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner trace the political and personal lives of the screenwriters, actors, directors, and producers on the Left and the often decisive impact of their work upon American film’s Golden Age.Full of rich anecdotes, biographical detail, and explorations of movies well known, unjustly forgotten, and delightfully bizarre, the book is “an intelligent, well argued and absorbing examination of how politics and art can make startling and often strange bedfellows” (Publishers Weekly). Featuring an insert of rare film stills, Radical Hollywoodrelates the story behind the story of films in such genres as crime, women’s films, family cinema, war, animation, and, particularly, film noir."

Radical Hollywood: The Untold Story Behind America's Favorite Movies by Paul Buhle (Author), David Wagner (Author)

"More than sixty years ago, McCarthyism silenced Hollywood. In the pages of Tender Comrades, those who were suppressed, whose lives and careers were ruined, finally have their say. A unique collection of profiles in cinematic courage, this extraordinary oral history brings to light the voices of thirty-six blacklist survivors (including two members of the Hollywood Ten), seminal directors of film noir and other genres, starring actresses and memorable supporting players, top screenwriters, and many less known to the public, who are rescued from obscurity by the stories they offer here that, beyond politics, open a rich window into moviemaking during the Golden Age of Hollywood."

Marxism in the United States: Remapping the History of the American Left Revised and expanded Edition by Paul Buhle

"A crown jewel of New Left historiography, this overview of U.S. Marxism was hailed on its first publication for its nuanced storytelling, balance and incredible sweep.Brimming over with archival finds and buoyed by the recollections of witnesses and participants in the radical movements of decades past, Marxism in the United States includes fascinating accounts of the immigrant socialism of the nineteenth century, the formation of the CPUSA in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, the rise of American communism and of the hugely influential Popular Front in the 1920s and ’30s, the crisis and split of the ’50s, and the revival of Marxism in the ’60s and ’70s.This revised and updated edition also takes into account the last quartercentury of life in the U.S., bringing the story of American Marxism up to the present".

A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn

If your interest in Paul Buhle's historiography moves you to want to delve for further into the history your schooling neglected, revisionist historian/activist/ Boston Red Sox fan/playwright Howard Zinn's magnum opus, A People's History, which was published in 1979 (with subsequent updates), to quote Leonard Cohen, is "one of those cracks in everything that lets the light in."


* Quotation marks indicate paraphrase/adaptations of publishers' books descriptions

** A précis of Howard Zinn's work I did for the Virginia Quarterly Review

I first met Zinn in 1976 as a nighttime graduate student. Much later, I “interviewed” him four or five times from the mid-90s through 2008, and came to look upon him as a friend and mentor. (He and his wife, Roz, came to my son Cuba’s first birthday party.) The overarching sense I have of Zinn was of his fundamental decency and the ease with which his principles were applied in the practice of his daily life. 

Howard Zinn circa 2001 (copyright 2001, 2019 Robert Birnbaum)


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