Thursday, November 17, 2022

History of Law, Life and Blaine Baker

I was noting the other day one specific essay in the collection Law, Life, and the Teaching of Legal History, recently published by McGill Queen's Press. Today a more general note about the book.

It's a festschrift,* a collection published in honour of an admired professor, in this case Blaine Baker (1952-2018), legal historian and longtime professor of law at McGill. Commemorative volumes like these generally include one or two biographical essays setting out the sterling personal qualities, depth of research, and enduring example of the person being honoured.

The editors of this collection, however, reflected on how legal history, like history in general, has turned away from worshipful biography. One of Blaine Baker's final projects, they note, was a study of Supreme Court of Canada justice Gerald Le Dain, one which Baker himself insisted had to be frank about Le Dain's struggles with depression and how they had affected his work and his relations with colleagues at the Supreme Court.

Following that lead, the compilers of this volume present not one bland tribute but six or seven anguished attempts to understand and explain Blaine Baker.  They present someone who was a generous and engaging colleague, a polymathic connoisseur of legal and historical knowledge, a much appreciated teacher and mentor ... but also one who also never wrote a complete book of his own, taught at McGill for decades  without ever establishing a home in Quebec, had no family and almost no social ties even with his closest colleagues, and was pushed into emeritus status at McGill at the age of 57, "an enigma to everyone who thought they knew him."

I knew Blaine Baker too -- and all this was new and sad and rather astonishing to me too. "He was my friend and mentor but I hardly knew him," is the refrain of this troubling book. If its model is followed, academic commemorative volumes may never be the same.


*One of the contributors, maybe paying tribute to Baker's traditionalism and punctiliousness, points out that it's not really a festscrift. Festschrifts honour living subjects, apparently. If they have died, it's a gedenkschrift. Right.

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