Mere hours after Pope’s Night celebrations were winding down, Alfred F. Young died at the age of 87 in Durham, North Carolina, on November 6. A leading scholar of the Revolutionary Era, he was also a great convener of scholars as the editor of several influential volumes. He wrote about public history, and cared deeply about how the broader public came to understand the history of early America.
You can read blog tributes by J. L. Bell, Josh Brown, and Ann Little, and H-OIEAHC posts by David Waldstreicher, Mike McDonnell, and Kenneth Lockridge; also make sure to read Alan Taylor’s review of Masquerade in The New Republic, which has essential biographical material.
When I was an undergraduate taking John Demos’s research seminar on the American Revolution, I read his award-winning 1981 article in the William and Mary Quarterly on the Boston shoemaker George Robert Twelves Hewes (which was later expanded and incorporated into his widely assigned book, The Shoemaker and the Tea Party), in conjunction with two 19th-century biographies of Hewes. It was an eye-opening assignment in many ways, but I was hooked by a particular quartet of sentences:
“He [Hewes] does not seem to have belonged to any associations. [Ebenezer] McIntosh was in a fire company. So was Hewes’s brother Shubael. Hewes was not” (584).
…which led me to ask, “what did it mean to be a firefighter during the Revolutionary era?” I often tell this story to my undergraduates (some of whom suspect that there is nothing new to write about), to reassure them that sometimes just a few short lines from a master scholar can be the inspiration for a fruitful line of inquiry.
Not long after, I found that Professor Young was generous with his correspondence and exacting with his criticism. I was deeply grateful for both. He and I discussed the capacity of the Old South Meeting House, the new Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum, and other issues related to Revolutionary Boston. At one point I found out (from Alan Taylor’s review) that, like both my parents, he had graduated from CUNY Queens College. He told me that Henry David (history) and Vera Shlakman (economics) had turned him on to the possibilities of history; he was “bitten by the history bug.” Young struggled at various points in his early career; after his retirement, he produced a startling amount of great work at a rapid pace. By then, his influence on the academic profession, and the broader community of history, had long ago become apparent.
I’ll be traveling to Durham this winter for research, and Al had been looking forward to welcoming me. We had never spent much time together in person, instead enjoying a correspondence of several years. Now I’m sorry I won’t get the chance to make up for lost time.