(Editor’s Note: I’m very grateful to David Sehat, Assistant Professor of History at Georgia State University, author of The Myth of American Religious Freedom (Oxford University Press, 2011) and one of our many bloggers emeriti here at USIH, for the following remembrance of Pauline Maier, who passed away earlier this week.–Ben Alpers)
This morning I learned that Pauline Maier has died. The profession has lost one its most generous, empathetic, and quietly analytic minds, and although I never studied with Maier, she had an enormous effect on me.
Back in 2006 as I was struggling to figure out my dissertation topic and approach, I submitted an essay to Modern Intellectual History that contained the core of my proposed argument. After waiting anxiously for several months, the mixed reviews came back. One simply dismissed my work in a paragraph as the obvious product of a graduate student. A second generously engaged the essay but advised revision-and-resubmission. And the final one was from Pauline Maier. I knew her identity because she had authorized the release of her name. She had seen too many abusive and unhelpful reviews from anonymous scholars, she explained. And although she recommended publication, she wanted me to think about some things. What followed was a three-page, single-spaced, 10-point-font essay that pointed out various primary sources, suggested ways to improve my argument, and generally told me (at least it seemed to me at the time) that my essay needed some serious attention to its evidentiary base. MIH wound up rejecting the manuscript, but I was grateful that I had submitted it. Her response changed the direction of my research and, more than any other specific influence, the shape of my dissertation. On her recommendation, I began reading state constitutions and state law in order to understand the legal history of religious freedom.
Fast forward two years to 2008 when I got a postdoc in the Boston area. My first thought was, where I am going to live? But one of my next thoughts was, how do I meet Pauline Maier? When I emailed her to ask for a meeting, she immediately suggested that we have coffee. Though it took a few months because of our various schedules, when we finally sat down I found someone totally different than I had expected. Her response to my essay had been learned, quietly devastating, and flat-out smart. I guess I thought she would be intimidating and aloof. But she was warm, funny, and chatty. I told her how much I admired her work and how helpful her response to my essay had been, and soon she was telling me that she was working on a history of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. “What does the Constitution mean by a ‘direct tax’?” she mused rhetorically. Or at least I thought the question was rhetorical until she kept quietly looked at me. She was asking me? How should I know? But she was working on something and paid me the compliment of asking my thoughts. I did my best to keep up my end of the intellectual conversation.
Before long we were laughing again. As we talked about the various people she was reading, it became apparent that we had unknowingly been engaged in a low-level library recall war for the past few months. Her husband, Charles Maier, had given her the use of his Harvard library carrel while she was on leave to work on her book. She promptly checked out what seemed to be every volume of the Papers of James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and the other founders. When I went to get a volume from any of those series, I had to recall it from someone who was, it appeared to me at the time, hording the library’s holdings. Although my unknown opponent promptly turned in whatever book I recalled, she immediately slapped a recall back on me, and around and around we went. As the truth dawned on me, I tentatively asked if she was the one who had all of the books and, after she admitted that she was, unmasked myself as her antagonist. We laughed for a good while and when the laughter died down, she asked, “Do you still need any books?”
Mostly, that generosity is what stands out to me now. Other people are better able to speak to her work and how it fits into the historiography and the neo-Whig historical tradition—though, for the record, 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.
One more story. When we were chatting after her USIH talk, I asked her if she considered herself an intellectual historian. Of course, I wanted her to say yes. She paused, before admitted that she really thought of herself as doing political history more than anything else. “But,” she continued, “how can you understand what people do if you don’t try to understand what they think?” How, indeed.
May she rest in peace.