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Remembering Al Young

YoungThe Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution tells the story of George Robert Twelves Hewes, a Boston shoemaker who participated in such key events of the American Revolution as the Boston Massacre and the Tea Party. Hewes story might have been lost to history if not for his longevity and the historical mood of the 1830's. When the Tea Party became a leading symbol of the Revolutionary era fifty years after the actual event, this 'common man' in his nineties was 'discovered' and celebrated in Boston as a national hero. Hewes story continues to inspire and instruct today, thanks to the work of one historian. 

Alfred F. Young, author of The Shoemaker and the Tea Party as well as many other works, died on November 6. He was a man beloved for his warmth and good nature and respected for his scholarship. When his wife, Marilyn, sent an email to her late husband's contact list, including Beacon editor Gayatri Patnaik, many responded to the news with memories of the man and his work. Gayatri sent an email to Marilyn:

"I’ve been an executive editor at Beacon Press for ten years and had the very good fortune to know Al. I’ve been reading all the emails from his friends and colleagues over the past few days and am struck, though not surprised, at the many people he touched. I myself was always humbled when I interacted with him, not because of his legacy as a historian but also by his generosity and kindness." 

Thinking that the thoughts of his colleagues and friends would be a fitting tribute to a man much admired here at Beacon Press, we've asked their permission to share what we publish here today. 

We'll begin with an email Young received before his death but never read, as it arrived in the final days of his illness. It is from Geoffrey Charles Peart, a descendent of George Robert Twelves Hewes, the subject of The Shoemaker and the Tea Party

Dear Dr. Young,
In doing some research on my family history, I came across your book on George Robert Twelves Hewes. I am a direct descendant of his by way of his son George Robert Twelves Fifteen Hewes. I was fascinated to read your account, and see in print the same stories my grandmother (born 1907) told me as a child.

While all letters and documentation I have are in relation to his descendants living in Michigan, we do have a portrait at home that family tradition holds is of G. R. T. Hewes. Below I have attached a scanned version. Should you have any questions, I would be more than happy to share what I have.

Thank you for the wonderful book!

Geoffrey Charles Peart

George Robert Twelve Hewes
Portrait of George Robert Twelve Hewes


It has been deeply moving to read the tributes about Al Young so many historians and comrades--especially from the many younger scholars for whom he was an inspiration and to whom he gave encouragement and support. He and I were roughly of the same generation--he was a few years older than I--and our work on popular and artisanal resistance movements and their connection with festivity took place at the same time: his in revolutionary America, mine in early modern France. We didn't know each other then, but I recognized him as a co-conspirator, and I'm sure he felt the same about me. It was thrilling to meet him in later years. And also so get to know his daughter Liz Young, who has carried on his tradition in another field. His legacy is a rich one.

Natalie Zemon Davis, Professor of History, University of Toronto 

This is incredibly sad news. Al was ahead of his time in so many ways, showing us how to mobilize the new social history to uncover political dynamics, how to get at the politics of memory--and above all, how to do our work with generosity, as part of a collective. I will miss him.

Reeve Huston, Associate Professor of History, Duke University

Al leaves a grand legacy as an inspired scholar, a person of principles, and a prince of a man. He took history seriously and presenting it to the public even more seriously.

Terry J. Fife (co-author with Alfred Young and Mary E. Janzen of We the People)

As an NIU colleague for years I can add that there was no truer friend, no stauncher fighter for what was right, no better model of what a senior colleague should be and stand for, or forhow a committed scholar, sensing the right moment, could literally change the way man, many thousands of others understood their citizenship, their country, and their world.

Mary Furner, Professor UCSB Department of History

Very sad. He was a great scholar and elegant stylist but also a model of modesty. I counted him as a friend and mentor and mourn his passing. The world's a much smaller place.

Bruce Laurie, Professor Emeritus, UMass Amherst Department of History

Al was hugely important to my own development, from when he first noticed me in 1973 onwards. We all stood in his shadow one way or another. He was a scholar, a gentleman, and a total mensch.

Ed Countryman, University Distinguished Professor, Southern Methodist University Department of History 

Al befriended me when I was working as an administrative assistant in the Newberry Library. He took me seriously, although I was a young graduate student, and he has been a mentor, ally, and friend ever since. I admired his work tremendously. But I admired him as a person even more. And I will miss him.

Laura Edwards, Professor of History, Duke University

From Ray Raphael, author of A People’s History of the American Revolution: How Common People Shaped the Fight for Independence and Founding Myths: Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past and coeditor of Revolutionary Founders: Rebels, Radicals, and Reformers in the Making of the Nation.

About six years ago, Al approached me with an idea: since people love to digest history in the form of biography, shouldn't there be a book featuring biographical essays of radicals of the Revolutionary Era?

Good idea, I responded. Then I continued to pump him with questions for my own work-in-progress.

A few weeks later, he mentioned his idea again, then again and again for perhaps a year, until he finally asked outright if I would be interested in working with him on such a project. I had been blind, I realized; he had been asking me all along, but I hadn't taken his hints. At a younger age, he would have charged into this on his own, but now he sought company.

I had two books in the works, but I could hardly say no. Gary Nash signed on as well, and for three years or so, the three of us tried to fulfill Al's vision. Truly, Revolutionary Founders was his book.

Al was my teacher years before he knew I existed. When I started studying people's history of the American Revolution in the mid-90s, I gleaned onto the classic collection of essays he had published in 1976 that gave the field definition, and I used the long historiographic essay he had just published as my starting roadmap. I didn't yet know him when he blurbed my first Am Rev book, The People's History of the American Revolution, but after that I introduced myself by email and phone, and from that moment onward, he was my constant advisor. Whenever I had any question, I turned to Al first, and he would rattle off, from the top of his head, a readings list I should pursue.

And now I would be working side-by-side with a mentor! It was a thrilling prospect, but Al proved to be a tough taskmaster. Email followed email, five or six per day at times, and in the course of the project, a thousand at least. He was direct and spoke his mind, relentless and demanding in his pursuit of historical truth, but he could be curt. Intermittently we quibbled over this or that. At one low ebb, when the tone seemed to turn a bit sour, I headed East with a mission: to meet Al in person. Never have I lived with someone so long and so intensely without meeting him first.

Durham, NC, the fall of 2009: Al and I hit it off famously, working together for three days, tidying up this essay and that, jamming on the intro, talking shop. Through work was how Al related most deeply, as musicians do with their music. I was face to face with a dedicated, highly effective, rigorous historian and a truly wonderful man; these went hand-in-hand. That visit was a gift; especially now, I am thankful for it. In point of fact, who among us does not owe Al great thanks? He defined who we are, collectively and to some extent individually. 

Staughton, in his Nov. 9 email tribute, says Al was "a product of the Popular Front atmosphere of the late 1930s," and he suggests that Al was somehow locked within that framework, promoting "the people" without fully embracing the African American and Native American experiences. That's not how I saw him. Al grew with the times and in fact he helped the times grow with him. He saw the Revolution as a complex affair in which there were many renditions of "the people." In our book, he insisted on including women, blacks, and Native Americans and felt uncomfortable to the end with not featuring such groups more; unfortunately, a central essay on the black experience was never completed.

Al was a true scholar, open to fully honest discussion. Once, on the phone, I confessed that in two footnotes to People's History, I had taken him to task on points in his Hewes essay. Had he noticed these? "Of course," he responded. "That's what most attracted me to you. You took me seriously." 

And he took me seriously, critiquing my work as only a master can. In an early draft for Revolutionary Founders, I had presented a tolerably good essay on Timothy Bigelow, a radical leader from Worcester who happened to be a blacksmith. Not strong enough, said Al. You need to bring out the blacksmith thing, that is crucial. Here, in fact, is an email on the subject I just retrieved from June 25, 2009, when Al was 84 and still, as you see, at the top of his game. I'll let him have the last word so we can see him in process, tireless, determined, and exacting. It’s a primary source, presented exactly as written. This was vintage Al as I knew him: supreme clarity of mind but working quickly, with his typing fingers not always up to the pace.

To explain why a blacksmith might have a following: Of all the artisans he is the one most essential to farmers and townspeople. They need him to shoe their oxen and horses, to mend their tools. He might make other household ironware too.

He is the one artisans who people would visit and have to stay a while while he shod their horses or repaired a pitchfork.

Only other comparable figure might be the miller but farmers would bring him their grains at infrequent intervals.

He is also a craftstmen whose work you could evaluate yourself and know whether he was a good man.

So it not just men talked as men will do as you say. He was familiar to many people; they knew him; they had confidence in him.

Would the Brit iron policies have been a felt grievance. Interesting question. Do you have a source saying it was.

The iron act of 1750 forbade colonists to erect any new slitting mills.[ not quite sure distinction from a forge]

And the importation of raw iron from the colopnies was encouraged. But says Merrill Jensen"the act did not serve either puroose. There was a staedy increase in iron production, but mostof it was used in the colony where it was produced... or shipped to other colonies where it was made into finished iron products by locval artisans'... colonial governors closed their eyes to the the fact of 'local slitting mills]

Jensen ed Colonial Engkish Histirical D ocuments   ed Jensen NY Ocford 1955. Jensen is even handed about these matters.

Do you have any other evidence?  My guess is the average blacksmith had all he could do managing  the damnds of local farmers.

BUT the boycot movement was accompanied by a buy American movement, big in Mass. with a long list of p;ropducts colonists were encouraged to buy from amer manufacturers.   I wrote in my mechanics essay as I recall that the prospect of of increasing Amer manufactures was an appeal to artisans rather than saying the restrictions were a felt grievance. A distinction. The visio of the prospects for Amer manufactures was an appeal ti many artisans.  Wteher you can say this for Bigelow.I dont know


That's Al for you. I mourn him and miss him.



Read more about Al Young: 

Al Young's essay "The People and the Patriots" in the Boston Review, November/December 2011

Josh Brown at the American Social History Project's Now and Then blog

Chris Cantwell at the Newberry blog

Ann M. Little at Historiann

Benjamin Carp at Common-Place

Gregory Nobles at the NYU Press blog

J. L. Bell's Boston 1775 blog: "Alfred F. Young: A Giant of a Historian"