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Review of “Teaching Law and Literature”

In Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Fiction, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, News and Current Events, Novels, Pedagogy, Teaching, Writing on April 24, 2012 at 8:33 am

Allen Mendenhall

Teaching Law and Literature.  Austin Sarat, Cathrine O. Frank, and Matthew Anderson, eds.  New York: Modern Language Association, 2011.  vii + 507 pp.  $25, paper.

What began as a coordinated, idiosyncratic project in American and British law schools has become a common component of curricula in English departments across the globe.  Law and literature as a subject and as a movement has gained purchase over the last three decades.  Inaugurated in 1973 with the publication of James Boyd White’s The Legal Imagination, which highlighted, among other things, the affinities between legal and literary rhetoric, law and literature has splintered into so many narrowed foci that today it is just as common to see courses like “Law in Late 19th Century American Literature” as it once was to see courses called, quite simply and broadly, “Law and Literature.”

To celebrate and explain this movement, The Modern Language Association (MLA) has released Teaching Law and Literature, an edition with forty-one essays by some of the most prominent scholars in the field, including none other than White himself.  Although law and literature has enjoyed ample funding and has become the subject of an increasing number of journals and conferences, not enough work has been done on the pedagogical aspects of the discipline.  Put another way, the discipline has yet adequately to address the question of how professors ought to teach the interplay of law and literature to students.

That is a gap that this book seeks to fill.  According to editors Austin Sarat, Cathrine O. Frank, and Matthew Anderson, Teaching Law and Literature  “provides a resource for teachers interested in learning about the field of law and literature and how to bring its insights to bear in their classrooms, both in the liberal arts and in law schools.”  Despite that stated goal, the book is weighted toward undergraduate education, and the editors admit as much in their introduction.

At a time when American law schools are under fire for admissions scandals and fabricated data, professors of law and literature—and law professors interested in humanistic and jurisprudential approaches to law teaching—would do well to turn their attention to undergraduates.  When budget cuts and faculty purging befall the legal academy, as they likely will, law and literature (and its various offshoots) will be the first curricular elective to suffer.  A discipline whose proponents struggle to articulate its purpose—will a course in law and literature help law students to pass a bar exam or to become better lawyers?—may not survive the institutional scrutiny of deans, administrators, and alumni associations.

Yet it is the urgent quest for validation that makes law and literature such an important subject.  At its core, law and literature is about grand questions: Why study literature at all?  What use do novels, plays, poems, and the like have for the general public and for the practical, workaday world in which lawyers serve a necessary function?  Might the recurring themes of justice, fairness, and equality expressed in canonized texts from disparate cultures and communities point to something recognizable and distinctive in the human condition?  And are there paralyzing limits to specialized knowledge of periods and genres when so many law and literature scholars, working out of different traditions and trained in supposedly autonomous disciplines, arrive at the same or similar generalizations regarding human experience?

One such generalization, interestingly enough, is that complicated relationships between people—whether based in race, gender, class, or whatever—ought to be understood in terms of ambiguity and contingency rather than certainty and absolutes, and that simple answers will hardly ever suffice to illuminate the nuances and contradictions of any given phenomenon, especially law.  That law is too often reduced to blackletter, blanket rules is not lost to writers of imaginative literature, who, many of them, have used law and legal institutions to enable critiques and explorations of complex social and philosophical problems.

It is little wonder, in light of the compatibility between literary and legal rhetoric or hermeneutics, that a Maryland appellate judge recently wrote in his concurrence that “[t]his case is E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India all over again.  Something happened up there at the Marabar Caves.  Was it an attempted rape?  Was it some form of hysteria triggered by strongly ambivalent emotions imploding violently in a dark and isolated catacomb?  Or was it some unmappable combination of the two as moods and signals shifted diametrically in mid-passage?  The outside world will never know.”  Here is a judge employing a work of literature to demonstrate a point about the limitations of human knowledge.  Law provides topoi in countless works of literature, and works of literature, as this judge apparently recognizes, can supply context and profundity to the deforming routines and desensitizing rituals of everyday law practice.  Without following the judge through to the end of his reasoning, one can sense in his lines a stark awareness of the incapacity of human faculties and hence the perspectival nature of what the philosophers call “justice.”

No review could touch upon all of the essays in this volume; the book defies summary but is broken into three categorical parts: “Theory and History of the Movement,” “Model Courses,” and “Texts.”  The first part introduces newcomers to key terms and conceptual rubrics, in particular the distinction between “law and literature” and “law as literature.”  The editors, à la Robin West, explain that “‘law and’ and ‘law as’ offer a foundational nomenclature that has become useful, both in its export and in its deconstruction, for conceptualizing other law and humanities fields.”

Since I mentioned West, I should also note that this section features essays by other founders of the movement such as White, Richard H. Weisberg, Peter Brooks, Julie Stone Peters, and Robert Weisberg (no relation to Richard).  The order in which these names appear suggests a deliberate move by the editors to structure this section chronologically: White is the founder, and each successive author revised and extended the discipline in significant ways.

“Model Courses” supplies resources for teachers seeking “to create a course, integrate new readings into an existing syllabus, and learn how to negotiate the challenges of interdisciplinary teaching by seeing what has worked, as well as what hasn’t.”  The authors of imaginative literature addressed in “Model Courses” are as diverse as those addressed in “Texts,” the third and final section whose subjects range from the Bible to Chaucer to Shakespeare to Conrad to Dostoevsky.  Lest readers suspect that the movement is but academic cover for a Bloomian-styled treatment of the Western Canon, one essay in this section encourages us to “broaden the canon with new texts” reflecting the perspectives of so-called “outsiders.”

Taken together, the essays in this volume present a refreshingly cogent evaluation of the law and literature movement in all of its manifestations.  As the movement proceeds apace, a work such as this that steps back to reassess, clarify, and reappraise is welcome indeed.  It is not too much to say that Teaching Law and Literature is indispensable to those entering into the field, and of immense value to those who have made the field what it is.  MLA deserves praise and support for making this book possible, and the editors, for their work and commitment, ought to be applauded.  Law and literature is proof that interdisciplinarity in the academy can be achieved and, more importantly, can flourish.

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