Alfred F. Young

2012 November 7

The historian Alfred Young died yesterday at the age of 87. I first met Al through Herb Gutman during the American Social History Project’s first year. Herb dragged Steve Brier and me up to an unusually crowded session of the Columbia University Early American Seminar where Al presented his work on George Robert Twelves Hewes, the Boston shoemaker and participant of/witness to the Boston Massacre and Tea Party, the subject of his groundbreaking 1981 article in the William and Mary Quarterly (which he later expanded into his 2000 book The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution). That evening, Al delineated the artisans’ world in eighteenth-century Boston and the stakes for and impact on the city’s working people in their participation in making the Revolution—all offered with his intimate knowledge of their lives and, still so unusual among U.S. historians, his vast awareness of the visual culture of the time and acuity in locating their presence in the details and shards of the pictorial record.

Out of that evening emerged one of our most cherished collaborations, with Al as primary advisor for our 1984 documentary Tea Party Etiquette. It was a very early ASHP effort, much of it composed of archival images uncovered by Al along with somewhat crude depictions of incidents in George Hewes’s life rendered by Kate Pfordresher and me (greatly enhanced by a sterling voice-over performance by the actor Victor Garber in the role of Hewes and music by the jazz saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom). Throughout its production, Al was an enthusiastic and imaginative collaborator, comfortable with the quirks of visual storytelling and creative in his thoughts about ways to transform academic prose into accessible dialogue. More than thirty years later Tea Party Etiquette is still one of our most sought-after programs.

Al was one of ASHP’s godfathers, to whom we often turned for advice and support throughout the years. Or simply for the pleasure of seeing him. I recall in particular a visit with him to the Corcoran Gallery in 1990 during an Organization of American Historians annual meeting in Washington, D.C., to view the Facing History exhibit on the image of African Americans in the fine arts from 1710 to 1940: an unforgettable learning experience, with Al brilliantly illuminating both the works of art and the labels’ interpretations—what I wouldn’t give to have a recording of that visit! And, a few short years ago, ASHP benefited from Al’s largesse when, as he and his wife Marilyn prepared to move to Durham,  he donated a large part of his stunning collection of revolutionary era exhibition catalogs and art history books to us.

Generous, observant, gracious, it was always a lovely experience to be around Al. We learned so much from him and are so much the better for having known him.

J. L. Bell at the estimable Boston 1775 blog has a wonderful tribute to Al here.

 

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