Pauline Maier, 1938-2013

paulinemaierPauline 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.

cowgirlbeerMy 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.

3 thoughts on “Pauline Maier, 1938-2013

  1. My first and only opportunity to actually see her work was by attending a lecture she gave at the Clements Library in Ann Arbor in some conjunction (or maybe some degree of coincidence) with the inaugural 1995 Omohundro Conference at Michigan. Whatever the topic was, they gave her a lectern that was more suited to an NBA small forward, and she was not an even mediumly-tall woman. Realizing the situation too late for a decorous furniture swap, she literally stepped up to the plate and gave an exquisite hour-long lecture with Q & A on tip-toes the whole time! I was in shock and awe. Resilience, resourcefulness, and especially *stamina* are not the least of academic or any other virtues, and they were all on display that night.

    You were at that conference too, Historiann, and while I unintendingly missed your paper (got back from an in-town lunch/road trip too late) I know you gave it while sick, so those virtues were on display all over again!


  2. Wow, good memory, Indyanna! I *was* extremely sick at that conference, and only showed up to give my paper. I’m sorry that I missed Maier’s talk, which was probably about her forthcoming 1997 book.

    I don’t believe I ever met her, although I feel like she has been a familiar presence in my mind. I’m sure I started reading her books as an undergraduate.


  3. I googled it, and her talk was given the evening before the conference opened (June 1) to the annual reception for the Clements Library Associates, and it was indeed on _Declarations of Independence_, so therefore covered the state and local ones too. I got back to your session in time for the last questions, then I remember your sitting weakly on the steps in front of the building before two good friends swung up in a car to whisk you off for recuperation.

    Wish I could have remembered some even halfway-good answers for my Ph.D. comprehensive exams like that, which were entirely oral back in the day! Oh well.


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