Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Kathryn "Kitty" Preyer: A Book of Her Own (part I)

On April 15, our friends at the Massachusetts Historical Society hosted a very special event commemorating a new volume of Kitty Preyer's essays and honoring her on the fifth anniversary of her passing. "Rethinking the History of Early American Law: Kathryn Preyer's Blackstone in America" featured four speakers, Pauline Maier (MIT), Alice Robinson (Wellesley emerita), Kent Newmyer (U. Connecticut), and our own Mary Sarah Bilder (BC Law). Her widower, Bob Preyer, was the Guest of Honor.

There were two main threads to the evening's remarks: appreciation for Kitty's groundbreaking scholarship in early American constitutional and judicial history, and gratitude for her friendship. All the speakers noted how difficult it was to discuss one without mentioning the other, and I am having the same difficulty the morning after. Nevertheless, I shall try to separate my thoughts and feelings into two postings.* First, her scholarship.

Throughout her long career as a history professor at Wellesley, Kitty wrote a number of landmark scholarly articles that broke new ground, reexamined seemingly settled controversies, and stood the test of time. Kitty had always hoped to gather her articles into a book, but did not live to see it through. Fortunately, her husband Bob and her friends and colleagues from the worlds of law and history achieved that goal, and it is that work that we celebrated last night. Finally, Kitty has what she always wanted: “a book of her own.”

And what a book it is. Her essays are gathered under three headings, “Law and Politics in the Early Republic,” “The Law of Crimes in Post-Revolutionary America,” and a third part showing Kitty’s scholarly study of the history of the book. Not surprisingly, this third part drew my special attention. Mary Sarah Bilder explained that Kitty realized books traveled two ways. They moved physically, of course, traveling across oceans and continents, arriving in colonists’ hands through the auspices of friends, families, and book dealers. But they also moved intellectually, spreading their influence internationally through lectures, commonplace books, newspaper reports, and correspondence among the early leaders of our nation. Kitty was fascinated by the seemingly simple question of which books were available to our founders, and what “availability” actually meant.

This idea resonates with all of us who are privileged to work in special collections. We are fascinated by provenance: who owned what when? We also puzzle over how our books’ former owners used the materials on their shelves. As we all know, just because one owns a book does not mean that he or she has read it, or even remembers it is there! That is why we love marginalia – it is wonderful to see a former owner so thoroughly engaged with a book. Other times, it is painfully obvious that the book was, quite literally, unopened, its leaves still folded over at the top centuries after it was published, unread and unreadable.

There is much more to say. Please read R.B. Bernstein’s excellent and glowing review of Kitty’s book, “A Monument for Use.” It is on H-Law, in the Reviews section, dated April 2010.

*I know, I failed miserably: Though I am writing about her scholarly accomplishments, I just cannot bring myself to call her “Doctor Preyer.” She will always be “Kitty” to me.

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