In Memorium: Al Young

Alfred F. Young
Alfred F. Young
In Memorium: Al Young

The Scholl Center learned late last week that historian Alfred F. Young died in Durham, North Carolina. Young was a prominent historian of the American Revolution, and his death is a loss to the field. Throughout his forty-year academic career at Northern Illinois University, Young redefined the study of America’s founding by emphasizing the role ordinary people played. Through widely acclaimed published works including The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution (Beacon Press, 2000), Masquerade: The Live and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier (Vintage, 2005), and Liberty Tree: Ordinary People and the American Revolution (NYU Press, 2006), Young revealed how women, workingmen, slaves, and Native Americans forged their own visions of the new nation—visions that often clashed with the ideas emanating from America’s “Founding Fathers.”

Young’s death is also a significant loss to the Newberry. “Al,” as everyone here called him, spent much of his retirement as a Senior Scholar in Residence at the Newberry where he helped develop the library’s vibrant scholarly community. Young helped found the library’s Early American History Seminar, which is now a part of the Scholl Center’s seminar series and remains one of the Newberry’s longest continuously running scholarly gatherings. Young’s presence also shaped the Newberry in other ways. Over at the blog Historiann, Ann M. Little, an Associate Professor of History at Colorado State University, offers a memorial that reveals Young’s sharp intellect, humble personality, and importance to the Newberry’s intellectual life. She writes:

I knew Al briefly after his retirement, when I asked him to put me on the schedule for the early American seminar series at the Newberry Library in the winter of 1998, and then when I won a fellowship and was in residence there in the winter and spring of 1999. He was a wise and funny presence as a scholar-in-residence at the Newberry, and I was enormously grateful for his willingness to let me present at his seminar and to introduce me around.

… Cannily and courteously, he invited me and the other young feminist historians on fellowship at the Newberry that winter to read a chapter of his manuscript and advise him on his treatment of gender and the famous cross-dressing career of his subject [Deborah] Sampson… . I met with him over a brown-bag lunch in a seminar room and advised him–the eminent senior scholar–on what he needed to read in order to bring his analysis of Sampson into dialogue with the gendered histories and queer interventions that had been published in the past decade. We were enormously flattered … Not many men of his generation or of his interest in working men dared to write a book about an important woman, but that was what Al was all about.

The blogosphere abounds with other memorials to Al, including the American Social History Project, Boston 1775, and NIU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. An official obituary can be found at the Durham News & Observer. But today, Origins is pleased offer a memorial from former Scholl Center Director and current Executive Director of the American Historical Association Jim Grossman. As Newberry staff member for more than twenty years, Jim has left his own imprint upon the library. The respect Jim pays to Al’s warm personality and sharp intellect serves to underscore Al’s importance to the field and to the Newberry.

The Newberry lost a friend last week. More than a friend. For more than two decades Alfred F. Young was the heart and soul of the Library’s community of scholars. When he retired (for the second time) to Durham, the Fellows’ Seminar changed. But when I left two years ago it still bore the marks of Al’s influence. I suspect it always will.

When I arrived at the Newberry as a Fellow in 1989, I encountered a community of scholars – nurtured genially and ingeniously by Dick Brown – who seemed rather mysterious. Some of the names were familiar from their publications, especially in early American history. But their roles in the Newberry’s community seemed a bit murky, at least to my naïve observation. The hardest to learn was Al Young’s role. To me, he was initially “Alfred E. Young,” a legendary figure in the historiography of the American Revolution and early republic. But very quickly he was simply Al – the man who eagerly engaged everyone on their own terms, across disciplines, to learn more about what they were doing. And to help them do it better. He was interested in everyone’s work.

I was at the Newberry for 21 years and Al’s presence was central to my life there in so many ways. I learned from him, enjoyed spending time with him, and sought his advice frequently. There is an image I will always remember: in the mid 1990s we shifted the Fellows Seminar from an oral presentation to precirculated papers. We would all arrive in the Fellows’ Lounge with a copy of the paper. Not Al. He would sit at the table with a stack of books. He came prepared. 

All of us at the Newberry will miss Al. But few of us will forget him. His life lives on in the scholarly community he helped build. Tonight, for example, the Scholl Center’s seminar in Early American History and Culture will convene again, as it has done since Al helped found it.

By Chris Cantwell

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