In Memoriam: Alfred F. Youngtags: obituaries, historians, Alfred F. Young, in memoriam, Gary B. Nash
Gary B. Nash is Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles and director of the National Center for History in the Schools. Mr. Nash prepared the original version of this essay for the online edition of Uncommon Sense, the newsletter of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture.
Alfred F. Young died last November at age 87 in Durham, North Carolina, after debilitating heart attacks, with his wife of sixty years and three daughters at his bedside. Known throughout the nation and abroad as “the godfather of artisans studies,” he was at his workbench until the very end. Friend of hundreds and mentor of scores, he was one of the few early American historians who challenged the consensus school of American history in the Cold War period and lived to see his history of class struggle and class-based politics widely acknowledged and honored.
Young was the second son of Fanny Denitzen, an Eastern European immigrant, and Gerson Young, a Polish immigrant who had grown up in London’s East End and came to America in the early twentieth century to become a successful lawyer. Sometime during the passage from one side of the Atlantic to the other, the Polish family name of Yungwicz/Yungowitz became Young. His parents separated and then divorced when Alfred Young was a youth, and he was raised by his mother in Queens, New York. He graduated precociously from Jamaica High School at age 16, third in a class of four hundred. Excelling at Queens College (BA, 1946) with a major in Economics, Young finished a MA in one year at Columbia and moved on to Northwestern for his PhD. After three years of course work, he took a series of teaching jobs -- at Wesleyan, University of Connecticut, and Paterson (N.J.) State Teachers College -- while working on the dissertation that earned him his PhD in 1958. Six years before that, Young had met the love of his life, Marilyn Mills, whom he married in 1952. When he completed the PhD, his first daughter, Sarah, was two years old, and Emily, born in 1959, was soon to come. Elizabeth’s birth in 1964 completed the family.
As a Jew, Young felt himself “an outsider,” the term he used in an autobiographical essay written for the William and Mary Quarterly eighteen years ago. Looking back, he believed that his attraction to popular movements and to the lives and politics of laboring people was related to his struggling for a place in the guild-like history profession that had been dominated for a century by white male Protestants. His interest in radicalism also owed something to his teenage attraction to New Deal politics and the Popular Front in the late 1930s and early 1940s and to his absorption with portrayals of the down and out as they emerged in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, in Dorothea Lange’s photographs for the Farm Security Administration, and in Richard Wright’s Native Son. At Queens this sense of the importance of the underside of American history was nourished by Vera Shlakman, a pioneer chronicler of factory life in the industrialized Northeast, and Henry David, historian of the Haymarket affair and biographer of union leader Terence Powderly. At Columbia, Young found encouragement from Richard Morris, who led the way in milking difficult legal sources to uncover patterns of labor history. His master’s thesis (1947), written as the cloud of McCarthyism gathered, examined the outcry against the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798.
In choosing a dissertation topic at Northwestern, where Ray Allen Billington served as his mentor, Young decided on a topic that satisfied his appetite for studying popular movements, already whetted by his reading of American Marxist historians, especially Herbert Aptheker and Philip Foner, on early labor movements, slave rebels, and Jewish militants. Young, as he later wrote, “conceived of my dissertation ... as a study of the first popular movement to emerge in American national politics.” Motoring up and down New York State in a 1937 Ford, he combed the archives for sources -- manuscript letters, newspaper essays, broadsides, pamphlets, voting tallies, and reports of political gatherings, political patronage, and associational life -- that allowed him to show the continuity between pre- and post-Revolutionary popular political parties in New York, where social and economic conditions provided the context for political contestation. This was the most detailed and nuanced exploration to date of post-Revolutionary era political factions, soon to mature as national parties. The book was published in 1967 as The Democratic-Republicans of New York: The Origins, 1763–1797 by the Institute of Early American History and Culture. At a magisterial 636 pages, it won the Institute’s Jamestown Prize.
Meanwhile, swept up in the political and racial ferment of the 1950s and 1960s, Young involved himself in the Connecticut Committee against Discrimination in Housing and later co-chaired an Illinois committee to halt the blacklisting of Staughton Lynd. In the 1960s and early 1970s, when dissenting scholars faced McCarthyite pressure to sign loyalty oaths, or faced dismissal from the academy, Young served on the American Historical Association’s Committee on the Rights of Historians that documented violations of academic freedom as evidence for the need for a historians’ Bill of Rights. (The AHA published the report in 1974.) At Northern Illinois University, where he was appointed in 1964, he was active in opposing the Vietnam War and worked with the local ACLU to protect student freedom of speech and assembly rights against the incursions of the campus police.
It was in this period of great turbulence that Young shifted his focus from political parties to the lives and political importance of colonial and revolutionary artisans. Inspired by the work of English Marxist historians on the agency of bottom-dwelling radicals, notably E. P. Thompson, George Rude, Eric Hobsbawm, and Christopher Hill, Young began a decades-long quest to unravel Boston’s social and economic fabric in order to understand how the Puritan maritime center became the cockpit of the American Revolution through the involvement of its laboring classes. In the absence of written letters or documents from the hands of artisans, one had to explain artisan action -- in the streets, on the docks, at the workbench, in churches -- as evidence of political consciousness and political goals. If Ebenezer Mackintosh, who led the Boston Stamp Act riots in 1765, left nothing in writing to express himself, what could one make of the poor shoemaker naming his first-born son Pascale Paoli Mackintosh (after the humble Corsican revolutionary)?
Over years of sleuthing in Boston sources for evidence of artisan rituals, cultural habits, and traditions inherited from England, he produced a masterpiece essay titled “George Roberts Twelves Hewes (1742–1840): A Boston Shoemaker and the Memory of the American Revolution.” Published in the William and Mary Quarterly in 1981, the essay rescued the poor shoemaker from obscurity. Young found in him -- in his own words–the “agency, consciousness, and transformation over time” that could turn the “sheep-like masses” and “unthinking mob,” as contemporary elite sources and modern-day historians condemned the artisans, into three-dimensional figures who counted in the unfolding of American history. Later juried as one of the most important eleven essays in the William and Mary Quarterly in fifty years -- at sixty-two pages it was the longest essay ever published in the flagship journal of early Americanists -- the Hewes essay has been reprinted in numerous anthologies and widely assigned in graduate seminars, both for its dazzling demonstration of how to use fragmentary and recalcitrant sources but also for treating historical memory, individually and collectively, with great care. Three years after its publication, the American Social History Project (ASHP) in New York released Tea Party Etiquette, a documentary film based on Young’s Hewes essay. He served as primary advisor for the film and reveled that year after year it was one of the ASHP’s most popular programs. In 1999, after Young had expanded his meticulous scholarship and reworked the script, Beacon Press published the landmark Hewes essay in a much expanded form as The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution.
To understand why Young spent so many years between his first big book on New York political parties and the publication of the biography of George Roberts Twelves Hewes, one has to appreciate that he was an eminently giving person who devoted himself to helping others -- tirelessly reading drafts of essays and dissertation chapters, responding to questions from those he had never met, and pushing young scholars to contribute to volumes of original essays on American radicalism. This made him “the dean of artisan studies,” as one historian put it some years ago. In this vital role as network builder, gatekeeper, and facilitator-in-chief, he poured himself into searching out new work that ran against the grain and could be brought together for volumes on American radicalism. In the first, Dissent: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism (1968), Young showcased the work of young scholars bucking the consensus tide. In the second, The American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism (1976), twelve essays covered the experiences of revolutionary women, Native American, African Americans, religious radicals, agrarian rebels, and urban mobs. In the third, Beyond the American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism (1993), ten essayists reflected broadly on the impact of the Revolution.
Anyone who visited Al Young in his Forest Avenue home in Oak Park could appreciate what a labor of love these three volumes represented. With an old desk piled high with essay drafts, with the floor strewed with open books, with file drawers bulging with typewritten correspondence, and the battered typewriter yielding up typographically tortured prose (because Al was as likely to hit a neighboring key as the one he wanted), these volumes made their way through Northern Illinois University Press and into the classrooms of innumerable colleges and universities. Along with all of this, he co-edited, with Leonard Levy, more than fifty thick volumes of original documents in areas of traditional interest as well as those just opening up in American history—for example, volumes on nonviolence, women’s lives and experiences, and slavery. Published by Bobbs-Merrill, the volumes sold some 750,000 copies, bringing into classrooms across the country the use of primary documents. The time spent on this effort was time lost to his growing passion for artisan studies.
It was at this Oak Park house that I came to know Mally, Al’s wife. On a street where Frank Lloyd Wright houses were prized, Al and Mally created an atmosphere that one sensed even before the entrance door closed behind you. Terry Fife, Young’s dedicated friend and collaborator, writes about how “Al and Mally were a productive and nurturing partnership. They were a working couple and a couple that worked. In their beautiful Oak Park garden, they cultivated flowers, vegetables, families, and friendships.”
Young worked with great passion and discipline not only to give voice to ordinary people, but also to make the history of ordinary people accessible to the public. The Chicago Historical Society possessed an extensive collection related to the revolutionary era because Easterners had moved west and deposited priceless materials there. In 1987, when asked to co-curate a “permanent” exhibit at the CHS, We the People: Voices and Images of the New Nation, Al jumped at the chance. With museum curator Mary Janzen and former student Terry Fife, he seized a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity “to rescue from oblivion not only the extraordinary leaders of the Revolution but also the ordinary men and women who played so vital a part in the events of the day.” Visitors thronged the exhibit to see revolutionary militaria, parchment documents, rosters of enlisted men, runaway slave ads, objects related to Native Americans, samplers fashioned by young women, and much more. For eighteen years before the exhibit came down in 2005, thousands saw a panoply of print and three-dimensional objects, along with lively and engaging captions and script panels that, on a good day, invaded the consciousness of visitors whose school books had de-revolutionized the Revolution.
After retiring from Northern Illinois in 1990, Young, like a rejuvenated athlete, threw himself into new projects while finishing old ones. In 1993 he teamed up with Fife and Janzen to reproduce the We the People exhibit in book form. For several years, he toiled at a capstone essay of 146 pages for The Transforming Hand of Revolution: Reconsidering the American Revolution as a Social Movement (1995)—a book of essays by ten historians who roughly fit into the New Left school. In appraising the legacy of J. Franklin Jameson’s famous essays published in 1926, where “the transforming hand of revolution” became the most remembered phrase, Young provided a deeply thoughtful and carefully balanced historiographical roadmap of the immense literature on the causes, course, and consequences of the American Revolution over nearly seven decades since Jameson’s thesis appeared. Last year, the essay was republished, along with a partner essay by Gregory H. Nobles that surveys another fifteen years of revolutionary-era scholarship, in Whose American Revolution Was It: Historians Interpret the Founding (2011).
In the late 1990s, Young struck out on a new venture -- to explore the life of the remarkable Deborah Sampson, a young woman from the nether stratum of New England society who fought as a man in the Continental army. Deploying his trademarks, meticulous sleuthing and graceful yet muscular prose, Young revived the hoary story of the girl soldier and invested it with new significance and wonderful details about her life before, during, and after the Revolution (when “the old soldier” toured the Northeast to tell her stories on the stage). With the magician’s touch, he waved his wand over her onstage persona, revealing how women played unsuspected roles in achieving American independence. Young hoped Deborah might make it to the silver screen, and one scriptwriter optioned his book. This did not occur; such is the case with Hollywood.
It was also in the 1990s that Young became the leader of the Newberry Library’s seminar on early American history. Jim Grossman, longtime leader at the Newberry, calls him “the heart and soul of the Library’s community of scholars.” Serving frequently on the Library’s fellowship selection committee, Young befriended all those who earned fellowships at the Newberry, especially taking under his wing aspiring young members of the profession. In 2004, the Organization of American Historians, where Young was a regular participant and committee member for half a century, honored him with the Distinguished Service to the Historical Profession award.
He was not yet done after moving to Durham, North Carolina, in 2007. He had just dedicated a collection of his influential essays to his four grandchildren that he published as The Liberty Tree: Ordinary People and the American Revolution in 2006. In an introduction titled “Why Write the History of Ordinary People,” Young opened with the memorable thoughts of Private Joseph Martin, who in his old age wrote the most moving account ever published of the ordinary soldier in Washington’s Continental Army. “Great men,” wrote Martin, “get great praise; little men, nothing. ... Every private soldier in the army thinks his service is essential to carry on the war he is engaged in. ... What could officers do without such men? Nothing at all. Alexander never could have conquered the world without private soldiers.” Then the essays of a longtime mole in the archives unfold: to show the importance of ordinary Americans, including women, native peoples, and those enslaved, in shaping the contours of the Revolutionary era; and to show how those accustomed to govern, employ, and exploit ordinary people bent to the pressures placed on them by those no longer ready to comply. Swimming upstream, Young took on all comers and made them listen if not agree. When I blurbed Liberty Tree, I called Young “America’s E. P. Thompson” and opined that “Young has done more than any other historian of his generation to give ordinary people their due as historical actors of consequence.”
At age eighty-three, Young threw himself into a final project -- not final because it was the only one he had in mind, but because it was the only one that came to fruition before he died. This was Revolutionary Founders: Rebels, Radicals, and Reformers in the Making of the Nation (2011). Edited with the author of this remembrance and Ray Raphael, Young, true to a half century of scholarship, spawned this effort to reach students and the public with biographical vignettes of those who challenged the colonial elite more than two centuries ago and dreamed of a democratically conceived America that their children and grandchildren might inherit. The three editors divided up the twenty-two essayists, their own included, for sharing the editorial back-and-forth with the authors. But Young wanted to edit all essays, though contenting himself with penetrating but typographically mangled email comments to me and Raphael. Now in paperback, the volume attracted wide attention for harvesting the best contemporary scholarship on figures who emerged out of the crucible of revolution to take Thomas Paine’s words at face value: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again” and that the new nation was “a blank sheet to write upon.” Young grumbled, elated, and argued about the essays, including his own on Ebenezer McIntosh, while improving them with his customary razor-sharp comments and suggestions. In an afterword, Eric Foner wrote that the essays “challenge us to expand the study of the Revolution beyond the realm of a few Founding Fathers” while “setting the record straight about the American Revolution and the ongoing struggle it unleashed for liberty and equality.”
The octogenarian had still more to say. When he died, he was working on the afterword to a revised edition of The Shoemaker and the Tea Party, commenting on the modern-day, self-labeled “Tea Party” and its extreme distortion of the event, a significant new chapter in his ongoing treatment of historical memory.
Word of Al Young’s death sent by email from his wife and daughters on November 6 brought a flood of condolences and remembrances that testify to the remarkable career he carved out over a long life. These can be viewed on the H-OIEAHC listserv. The words and phrases that stream through these testimonies are “generosity,” “passion,” “discipline,” “intellectual courage,” “energy,” “democratic commitment,” “rigor,” and “an inspiration for younger scholars.” “Thank you for tending the liberty tree,” writes Sarah Pearsall, “with such grace, energy, and commitment.”
For many years of working together, I thought of Al as a comrade-in-arms and a faithful supporter in the days of the National History Standards controversy. He was my unforgettable, indispensable friend, and memories of him will swim around in my mind whenever I listen to Dan Fogelberg’s “Leader of the Band.”
He earned his love through discipline
A thundering velvet hand
His gentle means of sculpting souls
Took me years to understand
The leader of the band is tired
And his eyes are growing old
But his blood runs through my instrument
And his song is in my soul
My life has been a poor attempt
To imitate the man
I’m just a living legacy
To the leader of the band
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