We learned yesterday that Al Young has died at the age of 87 in Durham, North Carolina. A leading scholar of the “New Left,” especially with respect to working class people and the history of the American Revolution, his influence on several generations of early American historians is indisputable. Young saw the Revolution as one that emerged from the bottom up, although he was very clear that the Revolution benefited only a tiny minority of elite Americans in spite of the sacrifices and suffering of the masses. You can read other tributes to him on H-OIEAHCnet by Mike McDonnell and Kenneth Lockridge, with others certain to follow, I am sure.
Young’s New Left view of the Revolution (as opposed to the consensus school dominated by Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood) triumphed among scholars trained from the 1970s through the 2000s. (Wood published a book called The Radicalism of the American Revolution twenty years ago. Young never wrote a book called The Consensus of the American Revolution! His full name was Alfred Fabian Young, after all.) Unlike proponents of the consensus school, Al was never offered a position at an elite, private institution, and spent the bulk of his career at Northern Illinois University.
I knew Al briefly after his retirement, when I asked him to put me on the schedule for the early American seminar series at the Newberry Library in the winter of 1998, and then when I won a fellowship and was in residence there in the winter and spring of 1999. He was a wise and funny presence as a scholar-in-residence at the Newberry, and I was enormously grateful for his willingness to let me present at his seminar and to introduce me around.
At that time, Al had finished his brilliant and eminently teachable The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution (1999), and was at work on the book that became Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier (2004). Cannily and courteously, he invited me and the other young feminist historians on fellowship at the Newberry that winter to read a chapter of his manuscript and advise him on his treatment of gender and the famous cross-dressing career of his subject Sampson. Kirsten Fischer, Amy Froide, and I met with him over a brown-bag lunch in a seminar room and advised him–the eminent senior scholar–on what he needed to read in order to bring his analysis of Sampson into dialogue with the gendered histories and queer interventions that had been published in the past decade. We were enormously flattered, but we also recognized that he recognized that we had something to teach him as people of another generation who were recently out of grad school. Not many men of his generation or of his interest in working men dared to write a book about an important woman, but that was what Al was all about.
As I have said here before: the truly great scholars never stop learning, and they embrace younger scholars to teach but also to learn from them. Al was one of the greats, and his wisdom and stubborn influence will be missed. Please leave your reminiscences of him and of his scholarship in the comments below.
12 Responses to “Alfred F. Young, 1925-2012”