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Maier book is a Fourth of July hit

If it's Wednesday, this must be Cambridge. At least, that's the joke an exuberant Pauline Maier, William R. Kenan Professor of History, might make following her whirlwind tour of New York, Philadelphia and Washington to promote her new book, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence, published on July 4 by Knopf.

"Let's see, I was in New York on a Thursday, doing [bookstore signings] and radio shows. I did NPR--it was great. That's the preferred medium for selling books," Professor Maier said. "And then Philadelphia. No, that was the week before Washington. In Washington, I was picked up at 8am, did one thing after another all day, then was deposited at the Library of Congress for a 6pm lecture that was taped for broadcast on C-SPAN. Whew!"

This month's media blitz also included appearances on "Talk of the Nation," "All Things Considered," and Voice of America Radio. Professor Maier, who has taught at MIT since 1978 and has published two previous books on the American Revolution as well as a junior high school history text, also appeared on television shows, including David Gergen's Corner and the Charlie Rose Show. "All the history buffs come out for radio and TV shows," she remarked. "There is an audience out there for history."

At one level, American Scripture is an engaging portrait of both the actual writing and editing of the formal Declaration of Independence, passed by Congress in 1776.

"I'm especially proud of the part that describes the way the document was edited by Congress. Unlike the usual results of writing by committee, the Declaration was a much better document when it came out," said Professor Maier.

A broader view of American Scripture, one endorsed by Philip Khoury, dean of the School of Humanities and Social Science, is that it is both a book that "takes on one of the 'saints' of America--Thomas Jefferson--and puts into perspective the Great Man (or Woman) theory of history. And it is also a book that shows how communities work. The Declaration of Independence was drafted in smaller, informal ways, community by community. Communities really are the unsung heroes of independence in this country. Pauline's book has popular appeal. It's a blockbuster with real historical value," Dean Khoury said.

American Scripture certainly got blockbuster treatment. While Professor Maier was on the road, The Boston Globe printed a lengthy interview with her, complete with a large color photo on the front page of the Living/Arts section. The New York Times devoted the cover of its July 6th Book Review section exclusively to American Scripture, complete with full-page clay-mation artwork. Book World, The Washington Post's book review, also gave the work the front-page treatment.

Several other newspapers weighed in with favorable reviews. USA Today called the book "a remarkably readable intellectual history ... a reminder that politics then, as now, was partisan and grubby ... a timely affirmation that the Declaration of Independence is what Americans choose to make of it."

The Hartford Courant described American Scripture as "an engaging new book about the Declaration ... This holiday weekend we can join in a chorus of thanks--to Jefferson for his splendid first draft, to the Second Continental Congress for its important improvements and to Maier for a fine retelling of the story."

The News & Observer (Raleigh, NC) said the book offers a "fascinating journey ... skillfully [recreating] those dangerous times. Filled with provocative characters, [it] is one of those rare works of modern scholarship--a book that belongs as much to the general reader as it does to historians."

Professor Maier, who dismisses suggestions of the P-word (as in Pulitzer)--"I don't want to jinx it," she said--acknowledges that American Scripture should appeal to students, teachers, historians and general readers equally.

"I wrote it the way I teach the Declaration," she said. "I try to show readers the same thing I show my students: that individuals do make a difference. Communities and community actions do make a difference.

"I love MIT students--the first thing they ask is, 'How much time did Jefferson have to finish writing?' One student knew right away: 'The Declaration is written as if he had pulled an all-nighter.' Which, of course, he had," said Professor Maier.

"As for the document itself, it's a living thing. Should it be treated as sacred? Certainly it should be preserved. But suggesting it is of divine origin--which its quasi-religious setting at the National Archives does do--is idolatrous. This is a human document, created by many Americans.

"My real purpose is to demonstrate how many voices fed into the decision for independence, and also into the Declaration itself. I see my book as affirming the contributions of many Americans. Its implications are, I hope, democratically empowering."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on July 16, 1997.

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