Friday, August 16, 2013

On the passing of Pauline Maier

Chris Beneke

Pauline Maier passed away Monday. Her academic title was William Kenan Jr. Professor of History at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It’s a distinguished position, but hardly does justice to the person who filled it.

I didn’t know Professor Maier was ill. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine her in a non-effervescent condition. Every other observation I’ve encountered since Monday affirms the testimony of my own experience: Maier was irrepressibly charming, ceaselessly brilliant, and blessed with a thunderous, seminar-shaking laugh.

Professor Maier published important books at a stately pace. There were four major monographs, one per decade. The first two changed our understanding of pre-Revolutionary politics;  the third upended standard interpretations of the Declaration of Independence;  the fourth provided the first full account of how the U.S. Constitution was ratified. Each was definitive, the sort of book that every early American historian needs to read at some point. Each was also a marvel of original documentary research and nonfiction storytelling.

Pauline Maier, the world-renowned scholar and teacher, also happened to be kind. She didn’t dispense saccharine praise to the minor figures who clamored for her attention. Instead, she offered genuine respect for their ideas and lots of tough, useful criticism. As a graduate student with no prior acquaintance, I invited her to comment on a conference panel. She agreed and, when the time came, cheerily directed me to think about many rudimentary things about which I should have already been thinking. A few years later, when I asked her to read part of my book manuscript—a punishingly dry and tedious tome—she agreed again, and then administered the thorough, friendly thrashing it needed.

These were the kind of things she did for people and partly explains why she published four landmark books instead of eight. Maier treated her fellow historians with the same honest consideration that she tendered her historical subjects, remaining ever open to the possibility that the lowly might possess more insight than their better appointed counterparts (as well as the possibility that they might be out of their senses). Ratification’s acknowledgements leave no doubt how much she appreciated the assistance that others offered in turn. She thanked them not merely in lists of names, or even sentences, but whole paragraphs. Word count be damned.

Maier was more irreverent in her work than big-name professors typically are. She had little use for unsubstantiated assumptions or pious orthodoxies. She had a keen eye for the workings of power and a still keener appreciation for the anxieties of those who confronted it. But Maier never succumbed to the vain illusion that doing history is the same thing as doing politics.

Professor Maier loved good argument but always approached the past with the kind of wonder and excitement that those burdened by mountains of historiography often find difficult to muster. Of course she knew the relevant scholarship inside and out. Maier just didn’t have much use for the things that we habitually say about those who lived before us. She wanted to know what they said themselves.

Scholars as celebrated as Pauline Maier are vulnerable to severe cases of self-absorption. That was not a malady from which she suffered. In addition to the innumerable kindnesses she extended to other historians, she was perpetually delighted by her children, grandchildren, and Rhode Island garden. And she loved her husband Charlie.

If, as planned, I had been able to attend her spring seminar at the Massachusetts Historical Society, I would have seen Professor Maier one last time. But I had kids to watch at home. As much as I regret that absence, I suspect she would have told me that the time was better spent with my boys. That’s one of the reasons I’ll miss her.


Rich Leffler said...

Your description of Pauline is beautiful and true. Her generous and extensive comments about me in her acknowledgments in Ratification stunned me. Your words brought tears to my eyes.

R. B. said...

Thank you for your eloquent and vivid description of Pauline Maier. She was an amazing person, and we were lucky that she graced the historical profession for as long as she did.

Joyce Malcolm said...

I am stunned that Pauline has passed away. What a generous, sincere and irreplaceable scholar. And what a kindly person. She is an inspiration to those of us still toiling away. Like you, Chris, I wish I had had more time to know her better.

Thank you for your moving tribute.

Joyce Malcolm