Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943

A Mensch for the Ages

My professional relationship with Al Young began when he called me not long after my first book came out in 1973, to invite me to contribute an essay to a volume he was putting together. First, he not only told me that he had read and liked my book—always a heady thing to say to a young scholar just starting out—but he went on to tell me that his invitation had been inspired by one particular section which he considered the best part of the book—and to my amazement, that was the very section that meant the most to me, in terms of the argument I wanted to make. And then, as if I needed any further persuasion, Al went on to tell me who else had agreed to write for the collection—a distinguished group of historians far more established in their careers than I. Naturally I accepted, with ill-disguised alacrity. Three years later, in 1976, two things happened: the book, The American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism, came out, and I met Al in person for the first time. He was the featured speaker at the retirement of my Wisconsin advisor, Merrill Jensen, who was, it turned out, more than slightly annoyed because I had published my essay in Al’s volume rather than in the festschrift collection organized by his former students!

From 1976 on, our professional and personal relationships grew increasingly closer, merging the warmth of our scholarly conversations and our friendship. I use the word warmth deliberately, because Al and I did not always agree, and when we didn’t, warmth could ratchet up to heat! Although Al mellowed somewhat in retirement, he always remained a man of strong, deeply held convictions, but any disagreements those convictions produced never got in the way of his friendships.

Among my favorite recollections of the adventures Al and I shared is one that for me encapsulates the true believer aspect of his persona. For a decade and a half at least, Al and I were part of the Milan Group, an international bunch of historians periodically assembled by Professor Loretta Valtz Manucci of the University of Milan for conferences on themes in American history. Loretta would decide on the subject to be considered and then bring together academics from Europe and the United States who were working on that topic. These symposia convened in Milan, and I think anyone who participated would tell you the experiences were unforgettable. The particular meeting I have in mind convened during the 1980s, in the period when the governing power in Milan was held by the Communist Party. The final session of the conference took place at the Leonardo da Vinci Museum, and for the wrap-up, Loretta had managed to assemble a number of eminent Italian historians of southern Italy for a roundtable discussion comparing the historical experience of that region with the southern United States.

Al had been designated the chair of the roundtable, and being a man who took seriously the concept of a round table and the collegiality it implies, he decided that before the session began, we must rearrange the furniture. Understand that for all the preceding sessions, our distinguished Italian colleagues had sat in a strict hierarchal order, with the full professors ensconced on the first row, a contingent of associate professors in the second row behind them, and a third row of lowly assistant professors and women of whatever rank. Now for Al, this just would not do—everybody had to be equal. So he enlisted all of us present in placing the chairs in a circle, which in Al’s view, signified both the democratic character of the discussion that would ensue and the innate equality of all the participants.

The Italian scholars politely helped us reconfigure the room. Then we all took a short break. But when we reassembled for the roundtable, we were vastly fewer than we had been! Our Italian counterparts were so highly offended by Al’s rearrangement of the seating that they refused to participate and had all decamped! I remember vividly the expression of astonished bewilderment on Al’s face! Even in Communist Milan, hierarchy and status had won the day, leaving the Americans gamely to carry on their truncated discussion.

Scholar, teacher, friend, mensch. Let me end by borrowing from Shakespeare Marc Anthony’s words about the fallen Caesar. Whether or not the sentiment accurately applies to the Roman, to my mind, it certainly applies to Al:

His life was gentle; and the elements
So mixed in him, that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, this was a man.

Ron Hoffman, Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture