The Territories of Elaine Maisner

Executive editor Elaine Maisner retired earlier this month after 28 years working at UNC Press.

The following guest blog post is by Laurent Dubois, John L. Nau III Bicentennial Professor in the History & Principles of Democracy and Director for Academic Affairs of the Democracy Initiative at the University of Virginia. Dubois is also the author of A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804, Freedom Roots: Histories from the Caribbean (with Richard Lee Turits), and the translator of The Haitians: A Decolonial History by Jean Casimir.

There were many times, during the inordinately long time it took Richard Turits and me to complete our book Freedom Roots: Histories from the Caribbean, when I told people that we were both grateful that our editor Elaine Maisner was being really Zen about the whole thing. People usually thought I was saying that metaphorically, using the term loosely. Then I would explain that Elaine really is long-time practitioner of Zen Buddhism. In a world, and a publishing industry, that is not always tolerant of the unruly and unpredictable ways that books get written, Elaine has offered generations of authors she worked with at the University of North Carolina Press the gift of her patience and wisdom.

Elaine arrived at UNC Press in 1994 after working at Yale University Press. She became a full editor in 1996 when she took over the Latin American and Caribbean studies list along with the food & regional trade areas of the Press, and when she also founded the Press’s religious studies list. Though Latin American and Caribbean studies was a new area for her, she quickly developed a keen and visionary understanding of the vitality of the field, and the ways in which it offered new ways of thinking about key aspects of the history of the Americas, and the globe – particularly the history of slavery, race, and emancipation. Starting with a first trip, which became a yearly pilgrimage, to the Latin American Studies Association Meetings in Guadalajara in April 1996, she began crafting a knowledge of the currents in the field and developing the networks that would be fundamental to her success as an editor.

The role editors play in the development of scholarly fields is often somewhat hidden, but it is truly fundamental. This is particularly clear in the case of Elaine’s career. For those of us working in Latin American and Caribbean studies, Elaine created a welcoming space for new and innovative work that pushed the boundaries of the stories that could be told. My vision of this is partial, and focused particularly on her role in shaping the past few decades of historiography on the Caribbean, but I’m sure that other authors could tell similar stories about her impact. Amazingly, the influence I describe here is just one piece of her contribution, for she also was simultaneously developing her major list in religious studies, books on regional history, and a thriving list in food studies.

As a graduate student at the University of Michigan in the 1990s, working with Rebecca Scott, I heard early on about Elaine’s presence as an editor. Ada Ferrer, who was a few years ahead of me at Michigan, worked with Elaine to transform her dissertation into Insurgent Cuba: Race, Nation and Revolution, 1868-1898. Published in 1999, the book won the Berkshire Prize, a recognition that signaled its deep influence in broader discussions of race and emancipation in the Americas. Two years later, the Press published Beyond Slavery: Explorations in Race, Labor and Citizenship in Postemancipation Societies, co-written by Frederick Cooper, Thomas Holt, and Rebecca Scott, which represented the condensation of years of work and conversation around the Postemancipation Societies project at the University of Michigan. Elaine also worked with UNC Professor Louis A. Perez Jr. on a series of now canonical works on the history of Cuba, as well as on many other honored titles, including Matthew Child’s 2006 study of the 1812 Aponte Rebellion, and Aisha Finch’s 2016 study of La Escalera rebellion. Collectively, the books edited by Elaine became touchstones for the field of Cuban studies.

Elaine also edited a series of works that transformed the way historians think about the relationship between Africa and the Americas. James Sweet’s 2004 Recreating Africa and his 2011 Domingos Alvares, African Healing, and the Intellectual History of the Atlantic World remapped the links between Central Africa and Brazil, and remapped our historical imagination in the process. Similarly, Pablo Gomez’s 2017 book on The Experiential Caribbean used a focus on healing practices to reconfigure understandings of the connections between Europe, Africa, and the Americas. And, noting Elaine’s expanding interests in bringing together the histories of the environment, food, and labor, she acquired The Last Turtlemen of the Caribbean (2020) by Sharika Crawford, who had worked with Lara Putnam, whose own Caribbean studies books signalled important moves into migration studies.

At this point I don’t know whose idea it first was that Richard Turits and I might write a history of the Caribbean (though I suspect it was actually Elaine’s!), but we embarked on that journey in the mid-2000s. (When we finally published the book, Elaine published a joyous tweet showing the massive folder, going back decades, of accumulated drafts and correspondence.) What was amazing about Elaine’s editing was that she understood that this was an inherently complicated task, given the multiple and in some ways dislocated histories we needed to weave together. The project went through many different configurations, and at each stage Elaine helped us – with unending patience – move forward. I saw her do the same with many other colleagues, and former students, with all the books she edited. As both an author, and in the advice I gave to students and colleagues, I deeply trusted Elaine’s perspective and vision. I knew that she would be responsive and direct with those who reached out to her about projects, and that when she took on a project she did so with care and clarity about how to make it a successful book.

Starting in the 2000s, Elaine edited a series of important books on Haiti. Building on the existing influential 2001 study of the U.S. occupation by Mary Renda, she brought out Matthew Smith’s 2009 Red and Black in Haiti: Radicalism, Conflict and Political Change. These two works were of signal importance in the study of twentieth-century Haiti, and in fact represented the continuation of an important historiographical tradition, since UNC Press had published Rayford Logan’s pioneering study of U.S.-Haitian relations in 1941, and has recently offered a valuable reprinting of the work. (Eric William’s towering work Capitalism and Slavery was also originally published by UNC Press, in 1944, and just reprinted in a third edition.) In the next decade, Elaine welcomed works on earlier periods in Haitian history, including Matthew Smith’s study of nineteenth-century connections between Haiti and Jamaica, and two important works on the Haitian Revolution, one by Graham Nessler (2016), and another by my former student Julia Gaffield, Haitian Connections in the Atlantic World: Recognition After Revolution (2015). A forthcoming intellectual history of Haiti by Marlene Daut, one of Elaine’s last projects, will cement the centrality of UNC Press for the field of Haitian studies. She has also been a champion of translation, working on several projects done with support from a translation grant program offered yearly by the Consortium on Latin American Studies at UNC and Duke, including the first work translated into English by the towering Haitian thinker Jean Casimir.

It is difficult to overstate the broader impact of these publications taken collectively. The strong presence of UNC Press as a space showcasing Caribbean history work helped colleagues get positions and get tenure (as Elaine once pointed out to me, with characteristic lucidity, universities at this point essentially outsource major pieces of their tenure decisions to editors at university presses), which has been a crucial part of making Caribbean studies a now increasingly visible and central part of college curricula. There is an exponential effect, then, of this kind of work, and it means a lot, because understanding the history of the Caribbean is, to my mind, vital to understanding so much about our current world. She liked to say, and knew that I would completely agree, that North Carolina was part of the Greater Caribbean. She helped make it even more so through her work.

All of this work was woven together through relationships and friendships. One reason you could trust Elaine to get a project done is because people trusted her. When she reached out to ask you to review a book, you said yes because you knew it would be a good project and that she would listen to what you wrote, and guide the author through the revision process with a steady and generous hand. She made the process meaningful, and intellectually inspiring. She sat with so many authors, often in the buzzing lobbies of various conference hotels, knowing what each stage of a project might look like – from early dreaming to the difficult decisions about what the final title should be – with humor, generosity, and an intelligence rooted in her deep and vast experience with many different types of books. The result is difficult to really capture or calculate, but I like to think of this territory of books as a kind of garden or a forest, now rich and full of life thanks to the seeds planted, the water and light offered when needed, and the willingness to let each grow and find its place in the sun.