In this series of posts, I will begin to explore the role of memoirs in the law and literature class.
I have always assigned memoirs in Law and Literature. This year, in my Law and Literature class, I am assigning four sets of memoirs and several autobiographical essays — more than ever before. In fact the course is bookended by reading memoirs of two independent women, at vastly different points in time — Abigail Abbott Bailey, a Congregationalist woman suffering abuse at the hands of her husband and Patricia Williams, the Columbia Law Professor.
When I took law and literature as a student, the first work we read was The Words by Jean Paul Sartre. Memoirs, I think, are fairly standard fares in law and literature. Memoirs, in a powerful way, force us to ask a central question of literary criticism: “Do you believe the author?” Believability and the law force us to consider several viewpoints of the works: did the author openly lie? did the author stretch the truth? and was the author deceived by his own artistry and construct a different world view than their reality suggests? Examining the author’s credibility impacts the way we perceive the role of legislatures and judges in assigning reasons for their decisions — “Do we really believe their rationale?” Like the Church Theology class that requires Augustine’s Confessions , law and literature should include personal tales, both from those powerfully impacted by the law, and those that are instrumental in shaping the law.
Memoirs also exist in historical settings that are not immediately clear to the reader. The writer, as it were, enveloped by historical circumstance writes from a perspective that can be judged as to its sincerity to the historical setting. Slave narratives fall into a category of providing distinctive personal experience enveloped by the historical circumstances of time and place. (For example Twelve Years a Slave: The Tale of Solomon Northup uniquely considers slavery from the perspective of one wrongfully deported under the Fugitive Slave Act.)
This semester I am assigning a new memoir that I believe captures perspective in historical setting quite well: Religion and Domestic Violence in Early New England: The Memoirs of Abigail Abbott Bailey, edited by Ann Taves. (We are actually kicking off the course with the work). Bailey’s memoir is a stunning treatment of law, religion and social norms. Bailey, an 18th Century Congregationalist (translation: puritan descendent) woman suffers at the hands of her controlling husband. The devout woman suffers her husband’s infidelity (occasioned by rape), incest with their daughter, and power plays. Abigail resolves to divorce her husband and settle their property. At one point, Bailey’s husband (Asa Bailey) convinces Abigail to go with him to settle their property affairs by selling their home to an unknown person some miles away. On the journey, Asa Bailey tells Abigail in effect that they were not going to settle their affairs, but rather, had just crossed over the boundary between New Hampshire and New York and that New York was a “better jurisdiction for dealing with women like you.” New York at the time did not allow divorce and so Asa Bailey transported his wife to a jurisdiction where negotiating a property settlement worked better for him.
The memoirs present an opportunity to discuss a number of themes such as: law as power; access to law and law as morality.
I hope that my students can critically examine Abigail’s memoir and that it can begin to shape the course. (We are also reading that week Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne and several other perspective pieces).
What memoirs do you assign in Law and Literature? What other Memoirs should law and literature classes consider?
Other Memoirs that assign (and which I will talk about at a future date):
Patricia Williams’ Open House: Of Family, Friends, Food, Piano Lessons, and the Search for a Room of My Own
Jack Henry Abbott, In The Belly of the Beast: Letters from Prison
Henry David Thoreau, On Walden
Barbara Kingsolver, Various Essays