Remembering Al Young
What I remember most about Al Young is his sense of fundamental fairness—his willingness to see all sides to a debate, to champion all issues and methodologies (even if they were unpopular or far from his own), to urge younger scholars on, to read book manuscripts (several of them dedicated to Al), to truly let a thousand flowers bloom.
I knew Al for more than forty years, and he had been a friend, colleague, and mentor that entire time. In 1970, when I was a first-year graduate student at Brandeis University, David Fisher introduced Al to me. I was researching my first seminar paper on poverty in Boston in the sub-sub basement of the Boston City Hall. I invited Al there and showed him the tax lists I was working with, and he reveled at what one might learn from them about the stories of ordinary people.
Al ran the Early American History seminar at the Newberry Library for years. When I was teaching at the University of Illinois at Chicago during 1977–1979, I attended the seminar regularly, and we talked quite frequently. When he gave an early version of his biography of the Boston shoemaker George Robert Twelves Hewes at the seminar, I suggested that, in addition to the two surviving biographies of Hewes, he extend his work by looking at a sample of Revolutionary War pension records as well. Luckily, he ignored my ill-considered advice and published “George Robert Twelves Hewes (1742–1840): A Boston Shoemaker and the Memory of the American Revolution” in the William and Mary Quarterly. Later, readers of that journal ranked this piece one of the best articles published in the first fifty years of the journal.
But Al remembered those tax records he saw in the sub-sub basement of the Boston City Hall close to a decade earlier. In his article, he made use of data on shoemakers from my article on early national Boston, which grew from my first seminar research project and which was published in 1971 in the William and Mary Quarterly. Now, I use Al’s Hewes article every year in my American Revolution course at the University of Georgia, where I introduce students to the remarkable shoemaker that Al discovered.
I have heard many similar stories about Al from others, scholars much younger than me, scattered across several historical generations. Al always urged historians to stick to their guns, to present their evidence and arguments as strongly as they could. The last time I spent time with Al was at the 2003 conference on class in early America that Billy Smith and Simon Middleton organized. I presented a rather controversial paper at the conference about both the stultified scholarship of the first half of the twentieth century in early American history and the ways senior scholars had forced younger, often left-leaning, historians out of the field. It was strongly challenged, but Al wanted to see it published and emailed me as much.
In 1987, I joined the faculty at Northern Illinois University, where Al taught for decades. He cared deeply about his students at NIU, both undergraduates and graduates, and, during the 1960s and early 1970s, was one of the faculty leaders advising student protesters. Our relationship blossomed after my arrival, and Al became one of my best friends in the department. He read many of my essays and edited a piece of mine for his second Revolutionary War anthology. I always eagerly awaited his marked-up copy and letters full of strike-outs, for his comments were always right on target. (How he managed emails and word-processed texts with similar strike-outs, just like if he had used a typewriter, I never figured out!) He became a family friend as well: my wife and I visited him and Marilyn in their Oak Park home several times, and my wife still remembers the delicious potato leek soup he served us. My daughter, now a second-year student at the University of Chicago, still has the teddy bear Al gave her soon after her birth—Al told me that every child, every daughter (he, of course, has three) deserved to have a real teddy bear.
I will particularly miss his egalitarianism, his democratic sensibilities, his rejection of all hierarchies—something not all left scholars share. He judged people and the historical arguments they made on their own merits, never insisting on any particular, rigid framework. It is no accident that his most significant published work, both in his monographs and in his extraordinarily important anthologies, emphasizes workers, plebeian women, and ordinary Revolutionaries. And he fully understood that conflicts lurked below the surface, and that ordinary people in the Revolutionary era did not unite in some grand class-based movement. Rather, he took the often contradictory desires of Indians, African Americans, mechanics, farmers, and the poor on their own terms, even if they clashed with each other, sometimes in disreputable ways.
Much like the great English Marxist historians, Al defended the practice of people’s history, of the necessity of class analysis, of human agency at times before they became popular. He served on a key OAH committee in the 1970s that investigated history department persecution of leftists and of those who took minority political positions, including one investigation at my current department at the University of Georgia, where the department administration made decisions based on compatibility (those who supported integration and opposed the Vietnam War were apparently not compatible). Al’s fervent defense of the unpopular helped open the way for the renaissance of people’s history, left history, microhistory, and cultural history that we all take for granted today.
Al had many friends, as this forum suggests, and he will remain vibrantly in our memory.
Rest in peace, Al.
Allan Kulikoff, University of Georgia