Pauline Maier, the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of History at MIT, died August 12 this year at age 75, a fact that this blog failed to note at the time. (I can’t remember why, except to note that an extended family member of mine like Maier also died of a recently diagnosed lung cancer a few days earlier, so I suppose his death was on my mind instead.) Mary Beth Norton writes to inform us that she will be speaking at a memorial service for Maier at MIT on Tuesday, October 29 in the Kresge Auditorium at MIT at 4 p.m.
You have to love the fact that in her obituary the Grey Lady 1) helpfully provides the pronunciation of Maier’s surname “(pronounced MAY-er)” and 2) called Maier the “Historian Who Described Jefferson As ‘Overrated'” right in the headline! Awesome! All historians should aspire to this irreverence, in my opinion.
The Jefferson-is-overrated comment is a reference to Maier’s brilliant history of the Declaration of Independence called American Scripture (1997). Many readers and reviewers have failed to note that the title is ironic, given that the goal of Maier’s book was to illuminate the role of the hundreds of state and local declarations of independence that were issued before the Continental Congress got around to writing theirs in the spring and early summer of 1776. It was a terrific book not only because Maier did the obvious thing that no one else had done recently (by looking at the various state and local declarations and comparing their language and emphasis to “the” Declaration drafted by Jefferson & committee), but also because it provided an invaluable lesson for understanding American political history writ large. That is, American politics happens from the grass roots. Leadership doesn’t so much lead movements as jump in front of the parade right as it swings into view.
My guess is that American Scripture has gone on to greater fame over the years as an excellent book to crib before one lectures on “the” Declaration. Tens of thousands of current and former college students since 1997 probably learned Maier’s version of the writing of “the” Declaration. (My thousands of students since 1997 sure have.) In consideration of her work on this book, we must consider Pauline Maier a founding member of the So-Called “Founding Fathers” club. (And let’s note that Maier did the real work of archival research and wrote a prizewinning book about it, instead of just writing snarky little non-peer reviewed blog posts! This cowgirl salutes you, Professor MAY-er.)
The Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture is soliciting remembrances of Professor Maier of 250 words or fewer for an upcoming feature in the December edition of its online newsletter, Uncommon Sense. The link in the previous sentence offers more information, or you can just send your remembrances to Martha Howard, Assistant to the Director and Digital Editor, at the Omohundro Institute at marthaDOThowardATwmDOTedu.