In Memoriam: Alfred F. Young
“How does an ordinary person win a place in history?” Al Young asked in his work. Occasionally, as in Al’s case, an ordinary person wins such a place by becoming an extraordinary historian. Al was a scholar who helped to pioneer history “from the bottom up,” replacing visions simply of well-heeled Founding Fathers with a richer world of “the people out of doors,” a thriving world of agitated mechanics, democratic republicans, cross-dressing soldiers, and a host of other individuals and communities. I came to know Al Young first through his scholarship. He brought readers like me into the streets of Boston in the American Revolution, also teaching us how street events were reshaped, and in some cases forgotten, by later generations. More recently, he also introduced us to individuals such as Deborah Sampson Gannet, to symbols such as the liberty tree, to the use of material culture and microhistory, and to the many ways in which ordinary people can and do make history. It has been a pleasure for years to teach this scholarship and to watch students, from first-year undergraduates to advanced graduate students, fall in love with it.
Al was as lovely in person as he was in print. I came to know him personally when I spent the 2004–2005 year at the Newberry Library in Chicago. Al had started and was running the early American seminar there, and was a great organizer, commentator, and participant. When I started a job in the area, I was thrilled to join him in that endeavor. In those seminars, Al showed a fierce intellectual energy, an amazing ability to enter into a great variety of projects, a generous encouragement of other scholars, and an astute insight. He consistently gave thoughtful comments. He also set a good tone. The conversations were critical, but respectful, and there was little attention paid to rank. I also interviewed Al for Common-place when his book on Sampson came out, and it was a delight to get to know him better (http://www.common-place.org/vol-05/no-04/author/).
On more personal notes, Al’s encouragement meant a great deal to me as I worked to finish my first book. He was warmly supportive, judiciously critical, tirelessly willing to read drafts, and wise beyond measure. His careful engagement with the problems animating my project much improved it. He helped me to see the material in new ways. He even shared his book collection in women’s history with me when he moved from Chicago, giving me volumes that I will long cherish, not least because they belonged to him. His happy genius lives on still in so many places on my shelves. Al was a mentor, a critic, an inspiration, and a friend. It was a privilege and a joy to spend time with this extraordinary historian and man. All I can say, Al, is good-bye and thank you for tending the liberty tree with such grace, energy, and commitment. We won’t forget it.
Sarah Pearsall, University of Cambridge