Alfred F. Young, RIP

Have I become an obituarist?  Yo, Bruce, do I see dead people?  Well, I try to revive them, anyway.  The past weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living, as that old mole–Karl Marx cast as Hamlet’s father’s ghost–sneaks up on your world.  I’m here to wake you up, in any case, then let you go back to sleep.  Sweet dreams.



Alfred F. Young died two weeks ago at the age of 87, without the fanfare and the solemn farewells that accompanied Eugene Genovese’s death six weeks ago, among them my own extended eulogy.  I spent a lot more time with Al than I ever did with Gene.  In my eight years as a graduate student at Northern Illinois University, I took a year-long seminar and three semester-length independent studies with Young.  He was always around, and he read every paper I wrote for him with scrupulous attention and pointed, often strident comments.  But he was less memorable, and less consequential, than Genovese, or many another obscure professor at NIU, such as Otto Olsen (Civil War-Reconstruction), or C. H. George (Tudor-Stuart), or W. Bruce Lincoln (Imperial Russia).


I don’t know for sure, and I would hesitate to say what I knew if I were sure.  But I will venture these hypotheses.  When I read Al’s Democratic-Republicans of New York, the “dissertation book” of 1967 (he was 42 when it was published), I thought, here is a man who can’t or won’t decide what matters.  Everything he found in the sources is on display because he couldn’t bear to exclude anything—and he said so in the preface.  Later, having read Erich Auerbach, I would think, this is parataxis in extremis, one damn thing after another.

Al couldn’t lead you through any nettlesome intellectual thicket—or rather, he wouldn’t.  He’d find you some more primary sources instead.  He was an archive unto himself rather than someone who could come and go to the sources with different research purposes in mind.  He was more comfortable with chronicles than narratives or theories.  He was “against theory” without declaring his antipathy, and long before Walter Benn Michaels and E. P. Thompson played their Anglo-American roles and decided that post-structuralism was a Trojan Horse rolled into the citadel of serious scholarship by feckless, perhaps murderous Frenchmen.

But there was a good reason for Young’s refusal to decide on what matters—the archive itself was in question in the 1960s and after, as social historians, labor historians, then women’s and gender historians, redefined what qualifies as real events from the past.  Al’s abstention from theoretical controversy allowed for the compilation of a more comprehensive archive in all these fields, to our later, immeasurable benefit.  In this sense, he functioned as founding feminist scholars did in the 1970s, 80s, and after, sacrificing monographic academic achievement to the cause of building infrastructure—mainly journals, networks, conferences, and conference sessions—in fields that didn’t yet exist.

There was of course another, less charming side of this necessary labor.  He was much more famous and influential outside NIU—where he functioned as the comrade, mentor, or champion of Jesse Lemisch, Staughton Lynd, Edward Thompson, Herb Gutman, Eric Foner, Sean Wilentz, Leon Fink, and Edward Countryman.  Inside the compound, we took the courses and organized the independent studies with Al’s blessing, and never knew Alfred F. Young was a big deal out there in the profession, perhaps because we didn’t (or couldn’t) give a shit about the profession.  He cultivated that external constituency—who could blame him?—but we knew nothing about it until we left, or unless we were his students.  Then we found out that writing a letter for Edward Countryman was more important to him than writing a letter for somebody from the NIU program.  Then we found out that our colleagues from elsewhere just assumed we chose Northern because Young was there to direct our dissertations.

Hello?  Some people, to be sure, did just that, but most of us were there to make the Revolution.  Just between you and me, I ended up there out of pure luck: I had been expelled from the small college in Wisconsin where I had gone to play football, and applied to Northern because a year as a construction laborer and a hospital janitor made attending any classes look better than working for a living (besides, I was supposed to be a novelist, and I had $1300 in cash from the construction company, an out-of-court settlement for a broken elbow sustained in a 27-foot fall off a building).

To fully explain Al’s obscurity, though, you’d have to entertain one more hypothesis.  He bet on the wrong horse.  He helped build the infrastructure of the new social and the new labor history, but these fields had already reached the point of diminishing returns in the late 1980s—by then dozens of local studies conducted by students of both Herbert Gutman and David Montgomery had convinced historians that there was only one story left to tell: workers (like everybody else) always lost in the prolonged transition from proprietary to corporate capitalism, ca. 1840-1940.  The title of Montgomery’s great and incoherent book of 1988—it registers all the centrifugal tendencies in the field—was The Fall of the House of Labor.  What else could be said?  Of course Lizabeth Cohen and Nelson Lichtenstein weren’t so sure about the timing of the ending, not to mention their students.  The moral of the story—the capitalists always win, socialism cannot thrive on this barren North American ground—has remained.  Just ask Howard Zinn.  Or Martin Duberman.  Or Michael Kazin.  And Corey Robin?

But I must say Al was a great teacher.  In my first semester of grad school, he taught a historiographical survey that introduced us to the controversies that constitute the field of American history (yeah, I knew already that I wasn’t sticking with Russian history).  It was my first strong dose of Perry Miller, and it rattled me to the point of thinking I’d have to write a dissertation on the goddamn Puritans just to prove him wrong.  I did end up writing on the Great Awakening—on Jonathan Edwards, Gilbert Tennent, James Davenport, and the other itinerant preachers of this extraordinary moment.  Al forced me to be fair to Miller rather than write him off as an effete idealist.  And he made me read Alan Heimert, whose book on the subject is still unsurpassed.

But he just wouldn’t take a stand on anything that mattered to me.  I didn’t know and didn’t care about the fights on academic freedom he’d been waging within the AHA—see Jesse Lemisch on this.  I wanted him to promote an intellectual agenda, something I could work on, with, against, anything but more primary sources!  Everybody else on the scene had exactly this, an intellectual agenda, and certainly Al had his disciplinary purposes.  It’s not so much that he didn’t care about the “big picture”—no, the bigger the picture got, the more sources he had, in every sense, to cite, and to complicate your nicely composed canvas.

So Al Young had a profound effect on me in the long run.  At any rate I hope he did.


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2 responses to “Alfred F. Young, RIP

  1. Rich Schneirov

    Jim, You got it right. Rich

  2. Pingback: Complex, schmomplex. We gotta DO something! | Dead Voles

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