Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943

Missing Al Young

Although I had met him in the early 1970s, we did not truly become colleagues and friends until 1984, when Al was inventing the pathbreaking We The People at the Chicago History Museum. Al’s project is now so clearly the state-of-the-art practice that it is easy to forget how recently he devised it. Although art historians have long worked collaboratively with museum curators, historians had generally left antiques to antiquarians. But Al’s student Terry Fife had gone to work at the CHM, which had a stash of objects in its vaults, donated long ago as part of an effort to show that Chicago people had taste and culture and were part of American national history. Al and Terry looked hard at these objects, asked new questions, wondering always that these things could mean.

Al deployed the traditional skills of the social historian. James Pike’s powder horn, on which he had scratched the name of his town, could be tracked to make a biography out of scattered bits and pieces. Al deployed the curator’s creative juxtapositions: he put George Washington’s suit on a mannequin next to a mannequin with John Adams’s suit to show that Washington really was tall and Adams really was short. And next to the suits is a city directory open to emphasize the self-supporting women who lived around them. Near a first printing of the Bill of Rights was a poster advertising a $30 reward for the return of Arch, a runaway slave.

The AHA’s recent report on the education of historians for the twenty-first century challenges academics to proceed where Al has led, integrating these forms of historical practice into our training. Don’t underestimate the difficulty. Al remains way ahead of us, with his own recent challenge to the City of Boston in his “Eight Propositions for the Freedom Trail”—a grand vision of a vast enterprise that nevertheless resists “the pressures of tourism to sanitize history.”1

Al’s first book had no women in it. But Al is a voracious reader, and by 1984 he had devoured the new feminist scholarship. In our conversations he was like a lawyer working on a brief: Is it fair to say this? Can I say that? He understood the complex relationship between class/race/gender in his bones.

By the time the museum exhibit was done, he was writing his still-stunning essay on the women of Boston in the making of the Revolution, grounding Abigail Adams’s often quoted “remember the ladies” letter in—and against—a solid foundation of social relations. There was Abigail Adams, but there was also, as in all seaport towns, a disproportionate number of women, among whom were a large number of widows, most of whom were poor, who lived in a society in which inequality was the norm. And Al found those women in the crowds: at Pope’s Day, at the Boston Massacre, at the killing of eleven-year-old Christopher Seider.

In restoring anguish to the radical dimensions of the American Revolution before the invention of the tradition that made sedition into a tea party, Al made it possible to re-imagine the “exhilaration”—his word—of the revolutionary moment: for women (Mumbet), artisans (George Robert Twelves Hewes), and slaves like Arch. Al insisted that we put radical actors back into the Revolutionary narrative, struggling upstream against the Revolution deniers, who would drain the Revolution of its nasty, creative energy.

And that gets us to Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier (2005), where all the skills come together: class analysis, the search for ordinary people, the gumshoe detective, the psychologist who is not afraid to decode the meaning of a dream in a pre-Freudian age.

Already in 1966, Al had found his voice. In The Democratic-Republicans of New York (a great book with a dull title) the voice is calm and reflective. It breaks down complex questions into possibly answerable ones: Who were the Jeffersonians? What issues produced the Democratic-Republican movement? Why did it matter? The voice had great respect for detail. He disarmingly wrote: “If the detail is tedious to some who are impatient for analysis, I am hopeful that it will find favor with others who believe as I do that presenting the texture of history is as important as drawing conclusions.” In Masquerade, we hear that voice throughout, more confident, asking and asking and asking, pulling the reader along as the historian searches. At the end, he concludes that Deborah Sampson Gannett had “an extraordinary capacity for taking risks.”

So did Al.

Is this because, in the Rapp-Coudert hearings that unfolded before he and Mally were in college in the 1940s, and in the Red Scare that continued into the 1950s, he learned early that the practice of scholarship cannot be separated from the rest of life? That his own teachers, Vera Shlakman and Oscar Shaftel, could be simultaneously the objects of his admiration and the subjects of humiliation in their bodies and their personal lives, fired for their politics while students picketed? He knew in his own experience: the Columbia professor who surreptitiously watched to see whether he bought PM on the subway newsstand, or the Northwestern professor who made good—this was understood to be a favor—on his promise to warn a Jewish graduate student of the joblessness he faced. He watched the heartlessness of gatekeepers, and his own narrow escapes. And from there perhaps came his commitment to the principle that “presenting the texture of history is as important as drawing conclusions.”

Al never believed ever that the academy is a haven in a heartless world. He knew it is heartless as all abstractions are heartless. That like life, it is likely to break your heart. Against self-righteousness and narrowness of vision, he flung the integrity of his prose, of his imagination, of his ethics, that we can honor only by trying to imitate as best we weaker folks can. And the corollary: no cloning. Immodesty is a major danger in our profession.

And he knew that you don’t do it alone, that survival requires community. Al’s last act of book-making was to co-edit a collection of other historians’ essays about the citizens of Deborah’s radical community. In the end Al challenges us to build and rebuild the community of historical practitioners, a community that includes an immense number of folks, ranging from tourists to academics; we must build it so that we will not be alone.

Linda K. Kerber, University of Iowa

Source: H-OIEAHC

1 Alfred F. Young, “Revolution in Boston? Eight Propositions for Public History on the Freedom Trail,” The Public Historian 25 (Spring 2003), 17–41.