This week, The Junto is dedicated to reconsidering the legacy of Al Young. Young died two years ago this week, but we scheduled the timetable unaware of that coincidence. Instead, we originally scheduled it to coincide with Pope’s Day, a topic many of us associate with Al Young. After his passing, the internet was filled with many personal and heartfelt memoriams from colleagues and former students. But this week, my fellow Juntoists and I will reconsider the legacy of Al Young and a body of work with few equals in the history of early American scholarship.
Alfred F. Young was born in New York City in 1925. He received his BA from Queen’s College in 1946, his MA from Columbia the following year, and his PhD from Northwestern in 1958. After a number of teaching stints, he was hired by Northern Illinois University in 1964, where he remained for over 25 years before retiring. His first book, The Democratic Republicans of New York: The Origins, 1763-1797, was published in 1967 and received the Institute of Early American History and Culture’s Jamestown Prize. The following year, Young edited the first of many important and groundbreaking essay collections, Dissent: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism, followed by The American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism in 1976. In 1981, The William and Mary Quarterly published his most important article, “George Roberts Twelves Hewes (1742–1840): A Boston Shoemaker and the Memory of the American Revolution.” It was voted by WMQ readers one of the eleven most important articles ever published by the journal. Young became even more productive after retiring, including publishing a number of essay collections, as well as what may prove to be his most enduring work, The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution, in 1999.
He once described the themes that dominated this large body of work saying,
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.
Young’s greatest historiographical legacy may be his commitment to the idea that everyday people were historical actors, and the fact that that hardly seems revolutionary or revelatory is largely because of Al Young. His mere existence was a challenge to “a discipline that likes to palm off its scholarship as value free.” He was a New Left historian before there was a New Left; he was the first neo-progressive; he was a radical historian decades before Gordon Wood started referring to them as “critical” historians. Al Young was perpetually ten years ahead of the field. Over the course of the next week, The Junto will try to catch up with him.