Can Law and Literature Function without Historical Narrative? 3

When I took law and literature in law school, it was frankly the best class experience of my education (sorry unnamed property prof — the rule against perpetuities still haunts).

But one thing that was missing when I took law and literature was the connection of the literature to any emerging cultural narrative or norm. We read lots of great books, many of which I have incorporated into my own law and literature course. But they were all disconnected from one another, except for the shared discussions of authorship, irony, the task of writing, etc… The course essentially became a course in the Great books of the world… with legal narratives behind them. Don’t get me wrong. That’s is a wonderful course, and I suspect for most law and literature profs it functions as an ethics alternative to the universe of professionalism that has engrafted legal education for the last hundred years — retrenching liberal education in the law school halls if you will.

In my own law and literature course (this is the third time that I have taught the class) I have attempted to incorporate a greater sense of historical connection between literature and the law. Perhaps my view of literature and the law is best summed up by Robert Penn Warren reflecting on Cass Mastern in All the King’s Men:

Cass Mastern lived for a few years and in that time he learned that the world is all of one piece. He learned that the world is like an enormous spider web and if you touch it, however lightly, at any point, the vibration ripples to the remotest perimeter and the drowsy spider feels the tingle and is drowsy no more but springs out to fling the gossamer coils about you who have touched the web and then inject the black, numbing poison under your hide.
Each time that I have taught the course, it has been a reflection of the culture of American law — so only literature by Americans or about America (my students read Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale which is set in Gideon or Evangelically reformed America). So out are Antigone, or even Jean Anouilh’s version of Antigone (set against a German occupied France in World War II). We don’t read Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, or Fydor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment or Brother’s Karamozov. And we don’t read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remain’s of the Day, one of my favorites. And of course, no Shakespeare.

Looking back over the list of works that my students miss out on, started me thinking about what other ways I could incorporate the historical narrative against the backdrop of literature and the law. Perhaps a study of 19th century literature would reveal a growing consciousness between wealth and poverty. That would be fun — Dickens’ Oliver Twist and Doystoveski’s Poor Folk anyone? Perhaps an obvious catalyst would be a course “Literature in the Age of Revolution.” William Wirt’s Letters of the British Spy , Victor Hugo’s Les Miserable, and Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities would be great. Perhaps even some twentieth century memoirs/ biographies around revolutions –, maybe Reading Lolita in Tehran for the Iranian Revolution and Che Guevara, A Revolutionary Life for the South American/ Cuban Revolution? (At the very least, we could educate our students about who the guy on their t-shirt is).

What other historical narratives could you see using in Law and Literature. Also, then, how is law and literature different from Legal History?

3 comments

  1. Great post – I agree fully and think it is a problem if a course focuses solely on a collection of disparate “great works” written by divergent artists writing at various times. Doing so simply instantiates the idea of the solitary (read: Romantic) artist.

    I also agree that the role of narrative is crucial to a viable law and literature curriculum, as it is a product of law (at least common law, with its emphasis on cases) and fiction.

    In law, torts, contracts, and so on, do have a coherent development over time, and we can track this in the normative stances of certain jurists or legislators.

    Let me thrown my hat in the ring – what about a course on the “anti-hero” in law and literature!

  2. Pingback: Law Culture and Humanities Day Two « The Literary Table

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