Alfred F. Young, 1925-2012

Al Young

We learned yesterday that Al Young has died at the age of 87 in Durham, North CarolinaA 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.

14 thoughts on “Alfred F. Young, 1925-2012

  1. He also had grandchildren in (California, I think) to whom he was devoted, and his very sensible decision to fly out there at the last minute to see them that cold February night in Chicago gave me a chance to moderate your 1998 seminar, Historiann, which I recall as a tour de force event. (You even stared down and quieted an incredulous-looking “bigfoot” challenger on some point whose name I’m forgetting at the moment). What I remember best about Al Young in seminar mode was that he would patiently let the discourse drift as it would, but if some critical point was not even getting on the table half an hour or so in, you could see from the look on his face that an “intervention” was coming soon. When it came, it was always on point and delivered in ways and words that could be simultaneously described as blunt, humane, and generous.


  2. I love reading the tributes to this wonderful historian. I never met Dr. Young, but I can’t teach an American Revolution course without using one of his books. I was really sorry to hear of his passing.


  3. Well, whoever it was, you beat his mouldy britch, or something like that. Only to get the blood flowing on the Near North side in that kind of weather.


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  5. All of us scholars should hope that when we’re retired and important, we still remember how much we have to learn from our junior colleagues. That is the mark of a great historian.


  6. truffula: I think your children might enjoy some of the stories in that book. (This is not to say that it’s a children’ book; rather, I know that you have presented your children with a great deal of challenging information & ideas, so portions of the book might work with them.)


  7. Re Susan’s comment: since I didn’t go to graduate school intending or expecting to study in the field(s) that I now practice in, and indeed by and large *didn’t* study anything about them there, I can truly say that pretty nearly everything I may now know about the latter fields I learned from–or in company with–colleagues who are much junior to me in the technical terms by which we measure that status. Including Historiann, I must say.


  8. challenging information & ideas

    Excellent. We have been back on a relative evaluations of the Presidents kick lately, presumably due to the election. Our current thing is Washington v. Jefferson. Founding of the country conversations for us alway start with some discounting for rich-dude attributes so I’m particularly interested in this book on those grounds.


  9. Sounds like this dude was a very interesting historian. When I studied early american legal history, the only books we were assigned were by dudes like Bailyn and Wood. I seem to recall there was some “controversy” about which Wood and Bailyn represented the two sides, although this was a long time ago, and I have forgotten the details.


  10. Pingback: Life, death, and early America : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  11. Pingback: Life, death, and early America | Historiann

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