Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943


Reflections on the Life, Scholarship, and Art of Alfred F. Young

No one had a more salutary influence on the historiography of the Revolution and early republic during the past half-century than Al Young—through his writings, of course, from The Democratic-Republicans of New York (1967) to The Shoemaker and the Tea Party (1999), Masquerade (2004), Liberty Tree: Ordinary People and the American Revolution (2006) and also through anthologies like Dissent (1968), The American Revolution (1976), Beyond the American Revolution (1993), Whose American Revolution Was It? (2011), and Revolutionary Founders (2011). His edited books and curatorial work testify to his remarkable patience and rigor in response to others’ work and his inspiring ability to connect historians across professional and even political divides. He was, profoundly, an organizer as well as a craftsman who relished in the social and collaborative as well as archival and writerly aspects of the historian’s labors. A letter or email from Al was like a gift: a combination of purpose and concern, gentle prodding mixed with careful praise, useful news, and mild self-criticism. As a colleague and friend as much as historian, he excelled at putting himself in another’s shoes. He combined the best of his origins and training, staying always on guard for creeping pretension, pride, illogic, or ill humor. While he identified himself as an outsider, he kept all lines of communication open, and was always as generous and friendly with younger scholars as with his old friends. No one can put it better than he did in 1995, after five years of retirement, when he was not even nearly done: “Looking back, and at the risk of trying to give coherence to a life filled with contingencies, I see patterns in my career. The commonality of subject lies in popular movements in early America. A second pattern lies in my quest for the original sources to do this kind of history. Third, I have worked in collaboration with others, trying to build communities of scholars, keeping the door open to dissenters. Fourth, I have given high priority to bringing the fruits of scholarship to a broad audience.” 1

We can only hope to do as well and to see his like again.

What follows is the substance of a talk I gave in a roundtable on Al’s work at the OAH in Boston 2004, the year he received the organization’s Distinguished Service Award.2 I would like to share it with my colleagues because it was meant as an appreciation of Al as a person as well as a scholar and a literary craftsman, and because I think it addresses a question that may be nagging some of us. For many years, we have hoped that Al would finish his definitive study of the Revolution in Boston. I myself never asked him directly how it was going, though I feared that all the help he was offering others, and all the collaborative projects he engaged in, might be slowing him down in finishing the project. Of course, there is no question that the outlines of his interpretation appeared in various shorter works, culminating in The Shoemaker and the Tea Party and Liberty Tree. Yet in considering the body of his work eight years ago for the OAH session, just after the publication of Masquerade, I argued that his seeming detour into the study of the memory of the Revolution was a timely and intellectually fruitful one (as well as a success with various audiences) that had lessons for the field.

I still think that is true. But most of all, I want to share this presentation because Al liked it enough to ask me for a copy, and seemed especially intrigued by my ruminations on the influence of Orson Welles on his work. I meant it as the most profound sort of compliment I could offer, and I believe it is also relevant to the great deal that Al did between 2004 and his passing several weeks ago.

Over the past two decades Alfred Young has added to his earlier studies of grass-roots politics a series of detailed investigations into the relationship between what people did and experienced in revolutionary times, and how they and others remembered those events decades later. What might have seemed a detour on the way to a definitive study of Boston’s Revolution has become a gift that may help us push beyond a certain impasse in the historiography.

How did this happen? What permits a senior scholar to push beyond the capacious limits of his own (prizewinning) work?

Memory will not help us. (Mine, at least, isn’t long enough.) Luckily, though, we have some memoirs. However brief, it is after all the kind of source that Alfred Young himself has urged us to read very closely. In his WMQ essay entitled “An Outsider and the Progress of a Career in History,” Young mentions that as a sixteen-year-old in 1941, his “then hero was Orson Welles, the actor-writer-producer-director.” Later he lists Welles’s Citizen Kane among the “works that moved me.”

What can be the meaning of this memory of Orson Welles? At one level, nothing could be more fatuous than to compare Al Young to the late Orson Welles, a boy genius who peaked early and in his elder years became best known for television ads in which he intoned, perhaps in a campy joke at his own expense, that he and Gallo vineyards would sell no wine before its time. (Actually, it is Al who never sold any wine before its time.) But the early influence was, I suspect, an important one.

The discourse of genius that surrounded Welles in his youth makes it easy to forget the historical and political imagination in his classic work. Citizen Kane is a meditation on memory and forgetting, an inquiry into the interlocked fates of social movements, popular media, and a heroic American past, seen through the career of an ordinary man who becomes extraordinary, and yet representative. The film asks: who was Charles Foster Kane? What was his relationship to his times? Kane is a failed revolutionary against money and privilege, one who came to be haunted by memory of what might have been. It is easy to forget that his dying word “Rosebud”—once and perhaps still the most famous word in American cinema—is not just an abstract symbol of childhood innocence: it is the name of a bobsled on which, when we first hear his voice, he is playing Civil War, shouting “The Union, forever!” The journalist-protagonist of the film, in quest of Kane’s real story, utterly misses the significance of the national past as it haunted the person he sees as occupying the center of the more recent past. This hapless newspaperman, who shows a marked disrespect for archives and for context as well as for idealistic political motives, fails to prevent the key artifact—the sled Rosebud—from being consigned to the fire. The theme of memory—Kane’s memory of his personal past melded with America’s collective memory of Kane in the newsreels that frame the action in the film—enabled Welles to make a film that has appealed to connoisseurs and to the masses.

All this should sound familiar to aficionados of Al Young’s recent work. His Wellesian turn, or return, has shown us one way out of a certain impasse in the scholarship of the Revolution.

Al’s earlier work demonstrated the importance of ordinary people and their political aspirations in the late eighteenth century. He brought together a rising generation of historians whose case studies of particular groups and places suggested a plethora of radicalisms and a bevy of missed opportunities in the period. Yet a synthesis proved elusive. The multiple revolutions they described worked better at the higher academic level than in popular narrative history. Then, a backlash attempted to sideline the insights of the neoprogressive historians by separating the common people from the Founders and the political narrative.

Al Young was in a good position to respond in a positive manner. He had never rejected or sidelined political history, so he was able to sidestep some of the uglier, polarizing debates between social and political historians. And during the 1980s he began to work with museum curators who shared a like disinclination to choose. As he put it, “for us it was not an either/or choice, but rather how to combine the two.” Objects could be juxtaposed, individuals and collectivities rubbed against each other in an open-ended inquiry that did not seek to excuse but rather made a central theme out of the limits or nature of the sources.

One of the first fruits was his famous essay on the short guy with the long name who lived long enough to be rediscovered as an ancient relic of the Boston Tea Party. True to the aims of bottom-up history, the essay focused first and foremost on George Hewes’s memory, its accuracy and what it meant to him. In doing so it provided an exemplary case study of popular consciousness, a portrait of meaning-making and motivation that could stand up to both pointillist Founding Father biography and to the ideological interpretation of the Revolution.

By the late 1980s “The Shoemaker and the Tea Party” had become as much of a classic. Meanwhile, Al and others were devoting more and more time to the aftermath, rather than the causes, of the American Revolution. In essays for the bicentennial of the Constitution, Young brought together the revolution at home with the conservative aspects of the settlement of 1787 by stressing the accommodations elites made. The best evidence for the revolution from below might be elite fears and reactions. If Al was right, and much other contemporary scholarship pointed in similar directions, it made postrevolutionary culture, and in particular post-revolutionary efforts to define the meaning of the Revolution, a crucial and neglected part of the story of the Revolution. The struggle for memory after the Revolution was a subject of importance in its own right.

That insight provided an opportunity to relate the significance of popular culture in the making of the Revolution, a subject on which Al had done pioneering work, to the popular culture of revolutionary memory.3 When combined with the biographical approach he assayed in the Hewes essay, here were the building blocks of an accessible, narrative history that could encompass both revolutionary radicalism and post-revolutionary reaction. The fruits were evident in the companion essay in the book version of The Shoemaker and the Tea Party, “When Did They Start Calling It the Boston Tea Party? The Contest for the Memory of the American Revolution.”4 Here Hewes’s memory meets the active forgetting of revolutionary radicalism. The story of the shoemaker and the tea party becomes part of a continuum, a century long struggle to define the meaning of what happened on the streets of Boston. (The last email I received from Al, in October 2012, mentioned that he was writing an epilogue for a new edition that would take the story to the present.) Everyone in the story—elite and common, famous and anonymous—are actors and acted upon. Hewes is clearly an actor in the Revolution, and changed by the Revolution—the original essay established that—but here he is also changed again by both elite retrenchment and his rediscovery and rewriting and the hands of others, which itself partook of both democratic and domesticating impulses.

Just as importantly, sensitivity to the workings of culture and memory does not keep it from being a good story. Al wrote in 1993 of having searched for “a way to let readers in on the critical process the historian goes through that would convey the gaps, uncertainties, and alternative ways of interpreting evidence. I am also searching for a style that would allow the historian to reveal where his own subjectivity enters the narrative. Getting at Hewes involved peeling off the overlay both his biographers and he had imposed on the memory of his life. I think it’s time to peel off the historian as well.” 5

This yields remarkable fruits in Masquerade, where Deborah Sampson Gannett’s poses of all kinds are reconstructed multiple times: first as they occurred, and then again as they were remembered by her and others in the early republic, and then by posterity afterwards. Gannett became a representative figure of an American Revolution that presented people like her with special opportunities to engage in disguise and in self-transformation. She was an orphan, servant, weaver, teacher, soldier, wife, mother, lecturer at various times; she had much more than cross-dressing to reconcile. The certainties of older political and social histories, so sure about who was whom, get turned upside down; we get the transformations in culture and identity that other historians have seen in the early republic, but, notably, without the generalizations about average Americans and the ideological and material benefits they supposedly reaped. Worlds are gained and lost, often by the same people. Gannett’s revolution is as full of pain and disappointments as Thomas Hutchinson’s in its own way, and like Hutchinson’s it begins and ends with a struggle to define what had happened. Combining social history (or in the trendier term, microhistory) with the history of memory brings but ordinary folks and elites onto the stage and into relation to each other. It sends us across county and state lines that defined earlier social and political histories but not always revolutionary era lives.

“Untangling her in public memory is almost as challenging as reconstructing her life; indeed the two projects contribute to each other. We may understand her history better when we understand what ‘history’ has made of her.” 6 This is more or less what Welles did with his title character, the extraordinary ordinary man Charles Foster Kane. Through a kaleidoscopic narrative of a journalist’s search for Kane that reflects on the nature of the materials available to interpret Kane after his death, the film evaded the limits of both omniscient narrative and of the myth of the self-made man. Kane, like Gannett, speaks and is spoken through; he is neither wholly radical nor conservative. Simple celebration and condemnation are kept at bay, without any sacrifice of moral or political force. The juxtaposition of public and private events and artifacts introduce a complexity to this mode of biography and memory study that make it more than the straightforward story of a life could ever accomplish.

I think it not accidental that, like Citizen Kane, Masquerade takes pains to narrate, within the text itself, Al’s encounters with an incredible wide range of folks who knew something about Gannett and her material world. The historian or artist/director has not so much been “peeled away” as made a fellow viewer of evidence, on a collective, social quest to find meaning in the past, meaning that cannot be assembled by an isolated individual any more than Deborah Gannett could masquerade, or Kane create a media empire, without an audience.

It is one of Al Young’s lasting gifts to have anticipated the turn to memory studies and to have found there not only interpretive but also literary devices that allowed neoprogressive history of the Revolution to reach a new depth and range. As I read him on Deborah Sampson, I cannot help but think that his highest compliment to her is one that he himself, as a historian, deserved: “She was a person with enough sense of herself to become someone else.”7

David Waldstreicher, Temple University

1 Alfred F. Young, “An Outsider and the Progress of a Career in History,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 52 (July 1995), 500. This essay, too, typifies Al’s style of strong argument, carefulness, logic, and humility.

2 Parts of Alan Taylor’s talk on that occasion later appeared in a book review titled “Transformer”, The New Republic (June 21, 2004), reprinted also as the final essay in Taylor’s collection Writing Early American History (Philadelphia, 2006), 245–56.

3 Young, “Pope’s Day, Tar and Feathers, and Cornet Joyce, Jun.: From Ritual to Rebellion in Boston, 1745–1775,” surely the most cited unpublished paper in the field, first presented at the Anglo-American Historians Conference at Rutgers University in 1973, and “Tar and Feathers and the Ghost of Oliver Cromwell: English Plebian Culture and American Radicalism,” first published in 1984 and reprinted in Liberty Tree, 144–79.

4 Young, The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution (Boston, 1999), 85–194.

5 “Author’s Postscript” to “George Robert Twelves Hewes: A Boston Shoemaker and the Memory of the American Revolution,” in In Search of Early America: The William and Mary Quarterly, 1943–1993 (Williamsburg, Va., 1993), 288.

6 Young, Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier (New York, 2004), 273.

7 Ibid., 88.