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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Friday, August 16, 2013

Remembering Pauline Maier

David Sehat published a lovely reminiscence of the late Pauline Maier on the U.S. Intellectual History blog:
I once asked her what she thought of the Neo-Whig label and she responded, somewhat puzzled, “Why does an interest in the assumptions of the people I study merit that label?” I’ll leave that question for others.

But it’s her intellectual generosity combined with a keen intellectual insight that I most appreciated about her. She provided a model of the mind. Although she engaged in serious debates that had real public ramifications and had great publishing success, she was not in any way arrogant or stuffy. She stayed close to her sources, asked questions of them without over-interrogation, and listened empathetically to what they were telling her.

During her talk at the 2011 USIH Conference, she praised the reporters of the ratification debates who, she said, often sat in the back of the hall or in the balcony straining to hear, in sometimes hot or even sweltering conditions, but who nevertheless tried to faithfully reproduce the debate for their posterity. I liked that she went out of her way to express admiration for people who had been dead for two centuries but whose work had made hers possible. That attitude of humility and intellectual community came through almost all of my interactions with her.
More historians’ reminiscences appear at All Things Liberty.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Pauline had been the William Kenan, Jr., Professor of History, issued a press release announcing her death that closed this way:
“Her scholarship, perspective, personality and dedication made her a remarkable MIT citizen,” former MIT President Charles M. Vest said. ”Her historical writing displayed first-rate research but also was highly accessible and readable. I used to kid her because she once gave a lecture at the University of Virginia (‘Mr. Jefferson’s University’), the thesis of which was that Jefferson is our most overrated president. Now that is sticking your neck out.”
The New York Times chose to make part of that anecdote the focus of its obituary’s headline: ”Pauline Maier, Historian Who Described Jefferson as ‘Overrated,’ Dies at 75”. But the paper didn’t say anything about the trip to Charlottesville, which was Vest’s main point. Instead, it quoted a National Review writer sniffing, “We know nothing that would deny Jefferson the principal credit,” which distorted Pauline’s thesis in American Scripture: not that Thomas Jefferson wasn’t the principal writer of the Declaration of Independence, but that its ideas were expressed in various forms all across America in 1776 instead of springing from his brain alone.

That prompted some historians on Twitter to object that the Times was reducing Pauline’s long and fruitful career to simple iconoclasm. They wanted to see something more like the Washington Post’s choice of headline a day later: “Pauline Maier, historian of American Revolution, dies at 75”. (So far as I can tell, the Boston Globe hasn’t posted an obituary yet, which says more about the state of Pauline’s home-town newspaper than about her position in the field.)

Some of those historians lobbied the Times to change its headline, which put them in the odd position of historians trying to change the historical record. I think it might be better to let Pauline’s work and the encomia of her colleagues speak for themselves, and the Times’s difficulty with categorizing academics’ work speak for itself. After all, earlier in the summer it headlined Edmund Morgan’s obituary with ”Historian Who Shed Light on Puritans,” leaving out large swaths of his career.


Joe Bauman said...

A very fine piece, Mr. Bell. I had only the briefest email exchange with her, yet her kindness, intelligence and humility came through clearly.

J. L. Bell said...

The Boston Globe took the time to do the job right.