J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Update #1: Remembering Al Young

Last fall I sadly noted the death of Alfred F. Young, a historian of Revolutionary America.

The Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture, publisher of the William & Mary Quarterly, has assembled a collection of tributes to Al.

Purely through the magic of alphabetical order, my remarks come right after the biographical introduction from Gary B. Nash. I recommend skipping over my words (which already appeared here) and sampling the reminiscences of the many students, colleagues, and collaborators who follow.

In particular, Terry J. Fife recalled working with Al as a graduate student and then co-curator of a major exhibit at the Chicago Historical Society:
Al appreciated the power of visual thinking and learning long before computers and PowerPoint presentations were commonplace in classrooms. He introduced thousands of students to the power of seeing history, encouraging them to view historical images and artifacts as primary sources and evidence, not simply illustrations. For those who were history majors and those lucky enough to have been graduate students at NIU during his tenure, Al invested his energies in developing and teaching those courses where he guided students about the ways, means, and methods of doing history.

Al brought his own high standards and his ethos of doing history to the many professional relationships he nurtured. Consider your subjects and your sources carefully, he would counsel. Look in creative places and in history’s many corners and crevices for your evidence and then interrogate the hell out of it. Tease out your interpretation of the past while you grapple with the nuances and contradictions—all the “delicious details”—Al so appreciated. “Getting it right” was a phrase Al used often as he considered his own work and the work of others. And those of us who learned to be historians under his tutelage will forever and always consider the importance of thinking about deference in historical context.
Terry also spoke at Al’s memorial service about being a grad student under Al. She had a child during that time, and for some employers an infant was still cause for worry rather than celebration. Al was most concerned—back in the 1980s—with finding a place where Terry could nurse her baby.

Terry Fife is now principal at History Works, a private historical-research consultancy. The Chicago Historical Society exhibit produced the book We the People, which is out of print but well worth seeking out in libraries or used-book dealers.

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