Office Hours: Margaret Maurer

William Henry Crawshaw Professor of Literature Margaret Maurer is currently making waves in the field of literature by compiling a cohesive edition of letters written by sixteenth-century English poet John Donne.

As an associate editor of the project, Maurer is involved in compiling, analyzing, organizing and publishing more than 200 of Donne’s letters.

According to Maurer, fewer than 30 of the letters are in Donne’s handwriting, which poses questions of authenticity and makes it complicated to navigate the remaining copies.

Maurer’s project will change the literary world’s understanding of Donne because previous biographers of Donne had been working without a verifiable and cohesive edition of his letters.

“In most cases the biographer knew the letters but all kinds of tricky problems with dating and to whom the letters had been written had not really been worked out,” Maurer said. “And in each case, [the biography] is predicated on assumptions about these letters. I think that when there’s a full edition, when they’re all in one place, when all the various theories about these issues are out there, I think then there will be a biography that will have more coherence to it.” Maurer said that Oxford has targeted the estimate duration of the project at ten years.

Maurer’s primary concentration is in Donne, as she also did her dissertation work on his letters and published a widely-known essay about his prose. However, she has also written multiple essays about Shakespeare, often presenting papers at the Shakespeare Association of America’s annual conference.

Maurer teaches Shakespeare, Legacies of the Ancient World and Literature of the Sixteenth Century.

Maurer did not grow up wanting to be an English professor. Conversely, she said she majored in many subjects at Seton Hall College in an attempt to avoid that path because her father was an English teacher.

In response to why she believes it is valuable to be an English major, Maurer quoted Jim Elrod, a Colgate alumna who also serves on the Board of Trustees, who said, “Any department at Colgate is going to teach you to learn how to write. What you’re going to learn as an English major is how to listen, and that’s one of the most important things you can learn in any walk of life.”

“The study of literature in your own language allows you to really listen to it,” Maurer said. “You can really detect nuance, you can really see where things are going that aren’t necessarily the declared direction of expression, and that is really useful.”

Maurer, who has been teaching at Colgate since 1974, cited the weather and the students as her favorite parts about working in Hamilton.

She was familiar with this part of the country because she received her PhD at Cornell University and prefers it to the south, where she taught for a year at the University of New Orleans.

“The students here are terrific,” Maurer said. “I had good students at New Orleans too, but not as proportionally high a number in a class would be really as interested in the work as students here would.”

Maurer advised any incoming English professors at Colgate to refrain from publishing papers just to prove that they can, and instead only to do something if it will matter somehow. However, she acknowledged that that advice is difficult to follow today when professors are often in situations where they are pressured to produce a certain number of works.

Accordingly, Maurer has had a long-term idea for a book about Shakespeare, but she has refrained from writing it because she does not think it would be too important.

However, Maurer said, “I’ve always wanted to write a book that would require a reader to read all the way through to the end. In literary studies, if you write a book most people just sort of check it out. They get your main idea and see how you apply it… I haven’t figured out how to do that.”

Maurer has been an associate dean and served on multiple committees. She also does a lot of work with alumni from the English department, and spends time with them in ways that continue their engagement with the subject, such as participating in book clubs and attending Shakespeare performances with them.

Contact Julia Queller at [email protected].