I am both saddened and honored to write a tribute to my friend and NYU Press co-author Al Young, who died on November 6, after suffering two heart attacks. Back in May, when he had the first one, he wrote, in his unsentimental and sort of self-deprecating fashion, that, “I talk very little, if that can be imagined.” I couldn’t imagine that, in fact, and I wrote back to express my surprise and concern about his condition, telling him how much the rest of us in the profession still needed him. Once again, he responded in his usual straightforward way: “Why the surprise: I am 87 after all. Dubious about crowds waiting for the word from me, but maybe there are a few hurrahs.”
There are, and will always be, many hurrahs for Al Young from a very loyal crowd of historians who have indeed waited for and learned from his words. Tens of thousands of those words came in the many books he wrote—two of which he published with NYU Press. These include Liberty Tree: Ordinary People and the American Revolution (2006) and Whose American Revolution Was It? Historians Interpret the Founding (2011), on which I was co-author. For over thirty years, as long as I’ve been reading Al Young’s work, I’ve been impressed not just with the reach of his remarkable intellect, but with the intensity of his scholarly knowledge of early American history. It’s hard to imagine anyone who knew the field better or cared more about really getting history right, especially about getting ordinary people—and their politics—into the picture. He did that himself, of course, whether writing about groups such as Massachusetts mechanics or individual figures like George Robert Twelves Hewes or Deborah Sampson. He also promoted and praised that approach in other historians, and he now has a legion of “younger” scholars—some of whom, like me, are now in their sixties—who proudly carry his influence in their own works.
The words I most value from Al Young, though, are the personal ones that came in his typically typo-filled letters and emails. Those words could be as challenging as they were encouraging (and they certainly were in his many responses to my various drafts of Whose Revolution), but in the end they were invariably perceptive and, above all, right on the mark. Like many of us who knew and loved Al, I can’t imagine making my way in the history profession without his friendship, guidance, and commitment as an ally, both professional and political. I get uneasy with the term “mentor,” because it’s thrown around so easily these days, but if I had to pick the one historian whose opinion I most wanted to know, whose advice and criticism I most willingly took, and whose acceptance of my work I most wanted to have, it’d be Al. He’s gone now, but I suspect he’ll always be with me, with all of us, as a model of intellectual courage, integrity, and generosity. We may not be able to meet the standards he set for us but, in his memory, we still ought to try.
Gregory Nobles is Professor in the School of History, Technology, and Society at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Along with professor Alfred F. Young, he is the author of Whose American Revolution Was It? Historians Interpret the Founding.