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Review of Paul Finkelman’s “Supreme Injustice”

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Dred Scott, Historicism, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Justice, Law, Laws of Slavery, liberal arts, Nineteenth-Century America, Politics, Scholarship, Southern History, The South, Writing on August 8, 2018 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared here in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Paul Finkelman is an anomaly: a historian with no law degree who’s held chairs or fellowships at numerous law schools, testified as an expert witness in high-profile cases, and filed amicus briefs with several courts. Federal appellate judges, including justices on the United States Supreme Court, have cited his work. Liberal arts professors anxious about the state and fate of their discipline might look to him to demonstrate the practical relevance of the humanities to everyday society.

Finkelman specializes in American legal history, slavery and the law, constitutional law, and race and the law. His new book, Supreme Injustice, tells the story of three United States Supreme Court Justices — John Marshall, Joseph Story, and Roger B. Taney — and their “slavery jurisprudence.” Each of these men, Finkelman argues, differed in background and methodology but shared the belief that antislavery agitation undermined the legal and political structures instituted by the Constitution. Had they aligned their operative principles with the ideals of liberty, equality, and justice enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, liberty rather than racism and oppression might have defined antebellum America.

Finkelman insists that the legacy of Marshall, Story, and Taney had enormous implications for the state of the nation, strengthening the institutions of slavery and embedding in the law a systemic hostility to fundamental freedom and basic justice. These are strong allegations, attributed to only three individuals. Yet the evidence adds up.

Start with Marshall, a perennially celebrated figure who, unlike many of his generation, in particular his occasional nemesis Thomas Jefferson, has escaped scrutiny on matters of race and slavery. Finkelman submits that scholarship on Marshall is “universally admiring” — an overstatement perhaps, but one that underscores the prevalence of the mythology Finkelman hopes to dispel.

Finkelman emphasizes Marshall’s “personal ties to slavery” and “considerable commitment to owning other human beings.” He combs through numerous records and presents ample data to establish that Marshall, a life member of the American Colonization Society, “actively participated in slavery on a very personal level.” Finkelman then turns to Marshall’s votes and opinions in cases, several of which challenged state laws and rulings that freed slaves. In fact, Marshall would go so far as to overturn the verdicts of white Southern jurors and the judgments of white Southern judges who, in freedom suits, sided with slaves and against masters.

Marshall could be an ardent nationalist attempting to effectuate the supremacy of federal law. One is therefore tempted to attribute his rulings against state laws in cases about slavery to his longstanding desire to centralize federal power. But that is only part of the story. Finkelman brings to light exceptions, including when Marshall selectively deferred to state law if doing so meant that slaves remained the property of their masters. Finkelman highlights these decisions to show that Marshall was hypocritical, compromising his otherwise plenary nationalism to ensure that contractual and property arrangements regarding slaves were protected by law.

Story was also a nationalist, having evolved from Jeffersonianism to anti-Jeffersonianism and eventually becoming Marshall’s jurisprudential adjunct. Unlike Marshall, however, Story could sound “like a full-blown abolitionist.” His opinion in United States v. La Jeune Eugenie (1822) was “an antislavery tour de force,” decrying slavery and the slave trade as “repugnant to the natural rights of man and the dictates of judges.”

Yet he prioritized radical nationalism over the rights of humans in bondage. In Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842), writing for the Court, he deemed unconstitutional a state ban on the extradition of blacks out of Pennsylvania for purposes of slavery. Story jumped at the chance to pronounce the primacy of federal law over state law even if it meant employing the Supremacy Clause to validate the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. “A justice who had once thought slavery was deeply immoral,” Finkelman bemoans,

rewrote history, misstated precedents, and made up new constitutional doctrine to nationalize southern slave law and impose it on the entire nation. The decision jeopardized the liberty of every black in the North, whether free or fugitive. The injustice of this opinion was profound.

Author of the notorious Dred Scott opinion, Taney is the most predictable of Finkelman’s targets. By the end of the Civil War, he was vehemently denounced and widely despised. Progressives in the early 20th century, most notably Felix Frankfurter, rehabilitated his reputation in part because progressive economic policy during that era promoted Taney’s approach to states’ rights and political decentralization. The mood has changed; most historians now probably agree that Taney “aggressively protected slavery” and “made war on free blacks.” Few law professors would recall Taney’s “early ambivalence about slavery and his defense of the Reverend Jacob Gruber,” who was arrested for sermonizing against slavery at a Methodist camp meeting and subsequently charged with inciting slave rebellion. Finkelman’s chapter on Taney thus runs with the grain, not against it.

At times Finkelman exaggerates or wishfully portrays the role of judges. He asserts that, prior to the Civil War, courts rather than Congress or the executive had “room for protecting the liberty of free blacks, liberating some slaves, providing due process for alleged fugitive slaves, enforcing the federal suppression of the African slave trade, or preventing slavery from being established in federal territories.” This claim may hold up in some of the cases Finkelman discusses (e.g., LaGrange v. Choteau [1830], in which Marshall declined the opportunity to enforce federal law that could have freed a slave who had traveled into free territory), but not in all of them. If a judge were faced with a problem of statutory construction, he (there were only male judges then) could have asked what the language of the statute meant, how it applied to the concrete facts and material rules before him, and whether it was constitutional, but anything more would have arguably exceeded the scope of his office.

The Constitution was silent about slavery until the Civil War Amendments, also known as the Reconstruction Amendments. Prior to them, any attempt to render slavery unconstitutional would have required appeals to natural law, natural rights, or other like doctrines that appear in the Constitution only in spirit, not in letter. The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison believed the Constitution was affirmatively proslavery, calling it a “covenant with death” and “an agreement with Hell.” If this is true, then when judges swear an oath to defend the Constitution (the basic framework of government with which all other laws in the United States must comport), they are also inadvertently vowing to defend the institution of slavery — unless the law is more than what statutes and the Constitution provide, in which case these judges could reach beyond the positive law to principles pre-political and universal.

Finkelman suggests another alternative: that certain constitutional provisions supplied a basis in positive law for antislavery strategies and stratagem. He cites, among other things, the congressional powers exercised in the reenactment of the Northwest Ordinance and the enactment of the Missouri Compromise and Oregon Territory; the admission of new free states into the United States; the due process guarantees of the Fifth Amendment; the rights of criminal defendants protected by the Sixth Amendment; the Privileges and Immunities Clause; and the guarantees of the First Amendment.

Each of these would have been problematic during the period Finkelman covers. There was not yet a 14th Amendment through which provisions of the Bill of Rights could have been incorporated to apply against the several states, although state constitutions contained protections of fundamental rights that federal judges recognized and affirmed. Moreover, the provisions Finkelman enumerates empowered Congress, not the courts, to pursue robust antislavery measures. Courts could have responded to and interpreted actions and directives of Congress, but they could not have initiated legislation or litigation. Had the Constitution enabled federal judges and the United States Supreme Court to strike down proslavery laws and regulations with ease, the Civil War Amendments might not have been necessary. But they were necessary to facilitate the demise of slavery.

Finkelman speculates about what the courts could have done to advance antislavery causes, but courts cannot do anything unless the right litigants bring the right cases with the right facts before the right tribunals while making the right arguments. Judges do not commence lawsuits but handle the ones brought before them. Finkelman could have examined some cases more closely to reveal how the facts, issues, reasoning, and holdings should have differed in rationale, not just in result. Too many cases receive only cursory treatment; lawsuits are more than picking winners and losers.

At one point, Finkelman accuses Marshall of reading a statute “in favor of slavery and not freedom,” but the statute isn’t quoted. Readers will have to look up the case to decide if Marshall’s interpretation was reasonable or arbitrary — if, that is, his hermeneutics adequately reflected a common understanding of the statutory language or intolerably controverted congressional purpose and prerogative. Finkelman chides departures from precedent, but rarely analyzes the allegedly controlling cases to verify that they are, in fact, dispositive of the later controversy by analogy of received rules.

One is regularly left with the impression that the only issue in the cases Finkelman evaluates was whether a slave should be free or not. Many of the cases, however, involved procedural and jurisdictional complexities that had to be resolved before grand political holdings implicating the entire institution of slavery could be reached. We’re still debating the ambiguities of federalism (e.g., how to square the Supremacy Clause with the Ninth and 10th Amendments) that complicate any exposition of the interplay between state and federal law, so it can seem anachronistic and quixotic to condemn Marshall, Story, or Taney for not untangling state and federal law in a manner that in retrospect would appear to have occasioned more freedom and less bondage.

Then again, it’s hard to fault Finkelman for subjecting these giants of the law to such high standards. That men like Marshall and Story have not been investigated as their contemporaries have in light of the horrors and effects of slavery speaks volumes about the willful blindness of the legal profession and the deficiencies of legal scholarship. Finkelman remains an important voice in legal education and has pushed scholarly conversations about slavery in new directions. At 68, he’s likely got more books left in him. Anxious readers await the next.

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A Better Sort of Constitutional Learning: James McClellan’s Liberty, Order, and Justice

In American History, Arts & Letters, Books, Britain, History, Humanities, Law, Philosophy, Scholarship on July 25, 2018 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here in Law & Liberty.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions not long ago characterized the office of sheriff as a “critical part of the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement.” This plain statement of an incontrovertible fact should not have been controversial. Yet with clockwork predictability, social media activists began excoriating Sessions for his ethnocentrism.

Even those who should have known better—Bernice King (daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr.), the NAACP, college-educated personalities in the Twittersphere—piled on the criticism, accusing Sessions of racism and suggesting the term “Anglo-American” was a dog whistle for white nationalists and the alt-Right. It was another sign of how uninformed many in our society have become, and of how name-calling and crude labeling have replaced constructive dialogue and civil conversation in the political sphere.

Fortunately, there’s a good, levelheaded primer for understanding the basic framework of American government that teachers and other leaders should recommend and assign to our ignorant masses: James McClellan’s Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government, which the Liberty Fund published in 2000.

McClellan, who passed away in 2005, was a proud Virginian who taught at several universities, including the University of Virginia, and was, among other things, the James Bryce Visiting Fellow in American Studies at the Institute of United States Studies (University of London) and president of the Center for Judicial Studies at Claremont McKenna College in California. He was also for a time a senior resident scholar at Liberty Fund.

Liberty, Order, and Justice is McClellan’s best known work. It maps the history and philosophy that shaped the U.S. Constitution and its amendments and is separated into seven parts, each appended with primary sources that are reproduced in full or in part: Magna Carta, the Petition of Right, the English Bill of Rights, the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Bill of Rights, the Federalist Papers, the Virginia Plan, the New Jersey Plan, the Northwest Ordinance, and many others.

As a straightforward overview of the seminal concepts that characterize American government—separation of powers, republicanism, federalism, checks and balances, rule of law—this volume could serve, and probably has served, as the principal textbook for a high school or college course. The “Suggested Reading” lists at the end of each of its sections provide more than enough supplemental material to round out a semester of comprehensive study.

A work of such breadth and scope is impossible to summarize. McClellan begins with British history, in particular the emergence of Parliament, the evolution of the common law, and the development of legal doctrines and principles that responded to changing circumstances. He discusses the differences between the French and American Revolutions, and their respective effects upon the imaginations of Americans who were alive at the time. He devotes an entire section to the Philadelphia Convention, which he says, perhaps overstating, was “often more like a gathering of polite friends than an assemblage of angry political zealots.”

McClellan’s chief concern is federalism, a principle that appears throughout. He highlights disagreements between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists, warning that “we should not presume that the Anti-Federalists were wrong.” He adds: “The inquiring student, having examined the debates thoroughly and objectively, may well conclude that the Anti-Federalists were right about certain matters.”

Lest his readers get lost in the historical and conceptual details, McClellan prefaces each section with the heading “Points to Remember,” followed by numbered outlines of central facts and themes. This feature enables easy memorization and study—another reason the book is suited for the classroom. 

For the most part, McClellan recounts historical events dispassionately, and lays out influential concepts with no personal pique or ideological bent. Only occasionally is he tendentious, and then only subtly so. For instance, his judicial hermeneutics seek out authorial intent, thereby rejecting textualism and signing on to a now passé version of originalism. “The basic interpretive task,” he submits, “is to determine the intent of the Constitution, laws, and treatises, and to construe all instruments according to the sense of the terms and the intentions of the parties.”

This statement might have made Justice Antonin Scalia unhappy.

He’s also skeptical of natural law, stating:

It may well be that we are all governed by a higher, unwritten natural law, emanating from God; that certain rights are by nature indelibly impressed upon the hearts and minds of all mankind; and that the spirit of ’76 is incorporated into our fundamental law. The problem is that these concepts, whatever their merit and value, are not provided for in the Constitution, and there is no evidence that the Framers ever intended them to be.

This statement would have made Justice Scalia happy.

McClellan calls Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England a “great compendium of learning,” a term of endearment that applies equally to Liberty, Order, and Justice. The two have a similar aim: to synthesize disparate principles into a coherent treatise and to explain the origins and foundations of the current legal and political order. In a different age, when information wasn’t immediately available and students couldn’t google their way to quick answers, this book might well have become as important as the Commentaries.

Its cheerful conclusion, at any rate, seems naïve in our present moment: “What we have offered you in this book is the basic structure of America’s constitutional order. It is up to you to preserve and improve that structure; and you have a lifetime in which to work at it.” Were he alive today, McClellan might not be so optimistic.

Review of Richard Posner’s “The Federal Judiciary”

In Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Jurisprudence, Law, Writing on December 27, 2017 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared here in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

“I’m not a typical federal judge,” Richard Posner says in his new book The Federal Judiciary, which seems designed to affirm that claim.

Released in August, this tome shouldn’t be confused with his self-published Reforming the Federal Judiciary, released in September. The latter has generated controversy because it includes documents internal to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, including personal emails from Chief Judge Diane Wood and confidential bench memoranda. The former, the subject of this review, is no less blunt, though one suspects the editors at Harvard University Press ensured that it excluded improper content.

Publication of both books coincides with the sudden announcement of Posner’s retirement. This quirky and opinionated jurist is going out with a bang, not a whimper, after serving nearly 36 years on the bench. He could have taken senior status; instead he’s withdrawing completely, citing his court’s handling of pro se appellants as the prime reason.

The Federal Judiciary presents “an unvarnished inside look” at the federal court system, which, Posner insists, “is laboring under a number of handicaps,” “habituated to formality, resistant to change, backward-looking, even stodgy.”

Posner is a self-styled pragmatist who champions resolving cases practically and efficiently through common-sense empiricism without resorting to abstractions or canons of construction. He adores Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., whose jurisprudence resembled the pragmatism of C. S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. His methodology relies on analyzing the facts and legal issues in a case, and then predicting the reasonable outcome in light of experience and the probable consequences of his decision. Accordingly, he follows his instincts unless some statute or constitutional provision stands in the way. Most of the time, the operative rules remain malleable enough to bend toward his purposes.

This fluid approach to judging stands in contradistinction to that of Justice Antonin Scalia, for whom Posner has little affection. In fact, Posner establishes himself as Scalia’s opposite. Where Scalia was formalistic and traditional, Posner is flexible and innovative. Where Scalia was doctrinaire, Posner is pragmatic. Where Scalia was orthodox, Posner boasts, “I am willing to go […] deep into the realm of unorthodoxy.”

Posner’s criticisms of Scalia can seem irresponsibly personal, involving not only Scalia’s originalism and textualism (legitimate objects of concern) but also his religious views on Creationism (about which, Posner declares, Scalia was “wrong as usual”). He calls Scalia’s belief in the devil “[c]hildish nonsense” and denounces Scalia’s unhealthy lifestyle. In a low moment, he calls Scalia “careless” for dying next to a sleep apnea machine the ailing justice wasn’t using. This rebuke is irreverent, but is it constructive or extraneous? Does it advance Posner’s judicial methods while weakening the case for Scalia’s?

Aspiring to be “relentlessly critical and overflowing with suggestions for reform,” Posner attacks the “traditional legal culture” that, he says, “has to a significant degree outlived its usefulness.” Cataloging the targets of his iconoclastic ire would be exhausting. He jumps from subject to subject, castigating “judicial pretense” and treating with equal fervor such weighty topics as statutory interpretation and such trivial matters as the denotation of “chambers” versus “office.” He confers delightfully disrespectful labels (“slowpokes,” “curmudgeons”) on his colleagues but can also seem petty (complaints about food in the US Supreme Court cafeteria come to mind).

Most of his critiques have merit. His persistent assault on the sanctimony and pomposity of federal judicial culture is acutely entertaining, signaling to some of his more arrogant colleagues that they’re not as important or intelligent as they might think.

Posner likes to shock. What other judge would assert that the Constitution is “obsolete” or ask when we’ll “stop fussing over an eighteenth-century document” that institutes the basic framework of governance for the country? A bedrock principle underlying the separation-of-powers doctrine holds that the judicial branch interprets law while the legislative branch makes it. Posner, however, announces that federal judges legislate even though they’re unelected. Conservative commentators would offer this fact as condemnation, but Posner extols it as an indispensable prerogative.

Although he alleges that judges are political actors, he’s impatient with politicians. He ranks as the top weakness of the federal judiciary the fact that politicians nominate and confirm federal judges and justices. (The president nominates and the Senate confirms.) The basis of this objection is that politicians are mostly unqualified to evaluate legal résumés and experience.

A refrain Posner employs to advance his argument — “Moving on” — might serve as his motto for judges, who, in his mind, must break free from undue restraints of the past. “The eighteenth-century United States, the nineteenth-century United States, much of the twentieth-century United States,” he submits, “might as well be foreign countries so far as providing concrete guidance (as distinct from inspiration) to solving today’s legal problems is concerned.” This isn’t meant to be hyperbole.

His citations to Wikipedia and tweets — yes, tweets — enact the forward-looking attitude he celebrates: he’s not afraid of new media or of pushing boundaries. Consider the time he asked his law clerks to doff and don certain work clothing to test facts presented by litigants in a case before him.

His advice to colleagues on the bench: Let clerks refer to you by your first name; do away with bench memos and write your own opinions; stop breaking for three-month recesses; stagger hiring periods for law clerks; don’t employ career clerks; don’t procrastinate; don’t get bogged down in procedure at the expense of substance; be concise; read more imaginative literature; avoid Latinisms; abolish standards of review. If you’re an appellate judge, preside over district-court trials. And whatever you do, look to the foreseeable future, not backward, for direction.

Readers of his most recent book, Divergent Paths, will recognize in these admonitions Posner’s distinctive pet peeves. He believes that judges who don’t author their opinions are weak or unable to write well. If judges were required to write their opinions, he supposes, fewer unqualified lawyers would sit on the bench: inexpert writers, not wanting to expose their deficiencies, would not accept the nomination to be a federal judge.

Posner’s love of good writing is so pronounced that he praises Scalia, his chosen nemesis, for his “excellent writing style.” He sprinkles references to Dante, Tennyson, Keats, Fitzgerald, Nietzsche, T. S. Eliot, Orwell, and Edmund Wilson and supplies epigrams by Auden, Yeats, and Alexander Pope. Those who didn’t know it wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Posner majored in English at Yale.

Still one comes away with the impression that he has sacrificed precision for speed. He appears to have cobbled together several blog posts and other articles of only ephemeral significance to pad his polemic. He discusses judges’ “priors” on page 116 but doesn’t define that term (“a mixture of temperament, ideology, ambition, and experience”) until page 148. Liberal with block quotes, scattered in focus, he recycles by-now familiar arguments against Bluebook and legal jargon and other staples of the legal academy. Even those who agree with him on these points will balk at the redundancy.

The repetition isn’t only at the thematic level: it involves diction and syntax. He tells us on page 408, “Pope Pius XII made peace with evolution in 1950.” Then a page later, he states, “The Church had had a ‘problem’ with evolution until Pius XII had made his peace with it in 1950.” On page five, he writes, “almost all federal judicial opinions are drafted by law clerks […] in the first instance, and edited more or less heavily by the judge.” He then echoes himself on page 22: “[M]ost judges (and Justices) require their law clerks to write the initial draft opinion, which the judge then edits.” He describes this same process again on page 276. “I write my own opinions,” he declares only to repeat himself later: “I write and edit my own opinions.” These are mere samples of a striking trend in Posner’s book.

A former law professor, Posner concludes by assigning grades to the federal judiciary in eight categories: selection of judges (B), judicial independence (A-), rule of law (A), finality of judgments (B), court structure (B), management (C), understanding and training (C), and compensation (B+). Total? Around a B average. For all the fuss, that’s a decent score.

Posner’s characteristic arrogance is grandly exhibited. “I’m a pretty well-known judge,” he assures us. His preface includes a short bibliography for “readers interested in learning more about me.” He names “yours truly” (i.e., himself) in his list of notables in the field of law-and-economics, an indisputable detail that a more humble person would have omitted. Posner’s self-importance can be charming or off-putting, depending on your feelings toward him.

Yet he’s honest. And forthright. Not just the federal judiciary but the entire legal profession thrives off mendacity, which is not the same as a lie or embellishment. It’s a more extravagant, systemic mode of false narrative that lawyers and judges tell themselves about themselves to rationalize and enjoy what they do. Posner sees through this mendacity and derides it for what it is. His frank irritability is strangely charming, and charmingly strange. The federal judiciary has lost a maverick but gained a needed detractor.

Daniel James Sundahl Reviews Sara Baker’s “The Timekeeper’s Son”

In Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Novels on December 13, 2017 at 6:45 am

Daniel James Sundahl is Emeritus Professor in American Studies and English at Hillsdale College where he taught for over 32 years.  Prior to retirement, he was Kirk Distinguished Professor in American Studies. He’s relocated from Michigan to South Carolina.

These days one can enroll in creative writing programs with coursework or workshops in narrative medicine, poetic medicine, expressive writing and even medical humanities.

It’s an interesting notion likely connected to “coming of age” stories, “family dynamics” stories, all to be told with within expansive and insightful narratives which apply to all fields of “work” and of course what it means to be human with an examined life. Storytellers, after all, are interpreters in professional and cultural environments.

What would be the point?

Narrative as healthcare can be the point especially since stories help build empathy, mindfulness, and are diagnostic tools.  Imagine for a moment a healthcare professional addressing an illness.  How quick and easy to venture into remote hypotheticals.  How better to address the illness through narrative, the interior experience of deep inquiry, confronting the illness as a story.

I mention this since it seems the way to address a review of Sara Baker’s The Timekeeper’s Son, a novel which asks the reader to recognize, absorb, interpret, and bear witness to a young man’s “difference” and his family’s dysfunction.

Why?

It can be used to explain motivation, even what organizes a novel’s plot or narrative development.

Here’s some context. I once sat with a student attempting something basic—how to use a dictionary.  It was fundamental, alphabet, phonetics, and a dictionary entry.  I gave the young man a word and then handed him the dictionary with the simple request: Look for the word which I had just sounded out.

He was flummoxed and looked at me and said, sweetly, “I don’t know how to use the air conditioner.”  The issue was severe dyslexia.

There’s a kinship between this small narrative and Sara Baker’s novel: In a Georgia small town, Josh Lovejoy, whose aspiration in life is to become a filmmaker, drives home late at night uncharacteristically “high.”  Accidentally he hits a jogger, David Masters, placing him in a coma.  In all likelihood, Josh owns some hidden disabilities, living as he also does in a fragile household.

The incident is shattering, more so because Josh is already estranged from his father, who sees little value in Josh’s aspirations.  The consequence of living with a “distant” father is Josh’s loneliness and lack of self-worth.

He’s adrift at an important moment in his life and culpable for the accident.  He takes up his court-ordered community service while waiting to see if his culpability will change when and if David Masters dies.  Josh works at the Good Shepherd School for Disabled Children.

Baker places the reader, then, in the heart and soul of a troubled young man; the plot, however, is diagnostic, addressing not only the Josh’s “troubles” but the delicate equilibrium of his family and the Masterses’ family.

It’s a “case study,” in other words; Josh’s father is a clockmaker whose sense of things is more devoted to the timepieces he keeps running but with the same disinterestedness he brings to his family life.  His “shop” is the place to which he retreats.  Josh’s mother, on the other hand, is equally preoccupied if not depressive.

In the novel’s time, then, as those hidden disabilities and wounds emerge against the background of the claims and limits of community, Josh faces a certain kind of annihilation which would include the “good” that’s in his heart.

Interview with Cyrus Webb Regarding “Of Bees and Boys”

In Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Creative Writing, Creativity, Essays, Humanities, Literature, Southern Literature on November 22, 2017 at 6:45 am

Redeeming the Debauched Falstaff

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Britain, British Literature, Creativity, Fiction, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Shakespeare, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on November 15, 2017 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared here in The American Conservative. 

In The Daemon Knows, published in 2015, the heroic, boundless Harold Bloom claimed to have one more book left in him. If his contract with Simon & Schuster is any indication, he has more work than that to complete. The effusive 86-year-old has agreed to produce a sequence of five books on Shakespearean personalities, presumably those with whom he’s most enamored.

The first, recently released, is Falstaff: Give Me Life, which has been called an “extended essay” but reads more like 21 ponderous essay-fragments, as though Bloom has compiled his notes and reflections over the years.

The result is a solemn, exhilarating meditation on Sir John Falstaff, the cheerful, slovenly, degenerate knight whose unwavering and ultimately self-destructive loyalty to Henry of Monmouth, or Prince Hal, his companion in William Shakespeare’s Henry trilogy (“the Henriad”), redeems his otherwise debauched character.

Except Bloom doesn’t see the punning, name-calling Falstaff that way. He exalts this portly, subversive figure as the charming master of deception and rogue scheming, and more importantly as a courageous vitalist “unmatched in all of Western imaginative literature.” Bloom’s astounding reverence for this clever, corrupting, calculating, mischievous Bacchanalian—whose life-affirming zest is as delightful as it is disconcerting—reveals he’s capable of the same kind of strategic indulgence that animates his transgressive subject.

His opening lines establish an affectionate, worshipful tone: “I fell in love with Sir John Falstaff when I was a boy of twelve, almost seventy-five years ago. A rather plump and melancholy youth, I turned to him out of need, because I was lonely. Finding myself in him liberated me from a debilitating self-consciousness.”

This isn’t academic prose. Bloom doesn’t write scholarship in the sense in which English professors, who chase tenure and peer approval, understand that term. Could you imagine a graduate student in literature showing up at the Modern Language Association’s annual convention and pronouncing from behind a podium that “Falstaff wants us to love him”? Or that Falstaff “is the mortal god of our vitalism and of our capacity for joyous play of every kind”? That would end a career before it began.

To hold Bloom to professional academic standards is fundamentally to misunderstand the man. His criticism is art unto itself; it’s genre-defying literature: part memoir, part fiction, part psychoanalysis. He’s a character of his own creation, as imaginary as Falstaff, and yet real and alive. In his psyche, the mysteries of which he plumbs with Freudian apprehension, Falstaff, too, is alive—and more than that, he’s a deified “embassy of life.” Bloom calls him the “greatest wit in literature,” whose vices “are perfectly open and cheerfully self-acknowledged.”

Immediately objections spring to mind: Didn’t Falstaff take bribes from competent soldiers who wished to avoid battle, thereby dooming his innocent, rag-tag band of unready troops? Doesn’t this bawdy gambler fake his own death to avoid injury and then seek credit for Hal’s slaying of Hotspur? Isn’t he a compulsive liar and self-serving fabricator? Rather than earn his keep, doesn’t he mooch off borrowed and stolen money while fraternizing with lowly criminals in disreputable taverns? Doesn’t he find stealing entertaining? Doesn’t he fail miserably in his attempt to seduce married women? Doesn’t he thrive in the seedy underbelly of impolite society?

No matter. The venerating and visionary Bloom sees Falstaff’s flaws as part of his appeal. Falstaff, prefiguring Nietzsche and Sartre, stands outside ethical jurisdiction as the lovable übermensch, the seductive sum of his own deliberate actions and unbridled agency in a world without God. Falstaffianism can be reduced to an abrupt imperative: “do not moralize.” These are Bloom’s italics, emphasizing, perhaps, the enthusiasm with which Falstaff rebuffs normative codes and basic standards of decency, vivaciously embracing the self—the subjective, knowing, self-aware “I” that wills a future into being—with laughter and existential rapture.

Kate Havard argues in Commentary that “Bloom must actually reckon with the sorts of things Falstaff does that would seem monstrous in real life.” I’m not sure about this mandate. Everyone is susceptible to wickedness. We’re fallible. Yet the magnitude of our evil acts is proportionate only to our capacity and will for achieving them. Greater power over others has the potential to increase the enormity of our chosen wrongs. Two hearts, equally blameworthy, can enact varying degrees of harm. With our meanness and malevolence, depravity and double-dealing, we’re all like Falstaff at some instant, even if we “cannot say that we are Falstaff’’ (my italics this time) because Falstaff cannot be universal—he’s too shrewd, raucous, and riotously convivial to be an archetype.

That we haven’t occasioned rank violence or mass damage is only evidence of our own powerlessness to do so in our moment of darkness. Our minds have contemplated horrors that our bodies never brought to bear. Knowing this, one begins to appreciate Bloom’s melancholy voice in such an adoring account. “Falstaff is no everyman,” he intones, “[b]ut all of us, whatever our age or gender, participate in him.” This truth, if it is one, doesn’t excuse Falstaff; rather it makes his decisions disturbingly recognizable.

Falstaff stands for absolute freedom, challenging dogmatic pieties even as he uses them to his advantage. He signals human choice and authenticity, but he’s elusive and multifaceted. “There is no single Falstaff,” Bloom submits. “In my youth and middle years I thought I knew Falstaff. That Falstaff has vanished from me. The better I know Sir John the less I know him. He has become one of the lost vehemences my midnights hold.”

This tragicomic Falstaff is so complex and ambiguous that he undermines expectations, avoids patterned behavior, and escapes simple explanation. “Falstaff is as bewildering as Hamlet, as infinitely varied as Cleopatra,” says Bloom. “He can be apprehended but never fully comprehended. There is no end to Falstaff. His matrix is freedom but he dies for love.”

Falstaff is a more cunning and charismatic version of Chaucer’s drunkenly crass miller, whose hilarious tale of casual adultery lacks the stark intentionality that makes Falstaff so treacherously in control. He’s like a flatulent Santa Claus, without the meekness or mildness of Christian self-denial. He is, in a word, exuberant, and as Bloom opines, “Exuberance in itself is a shadowy virtue and can be dangerous to the self and to others, but in Falstaff it generates more life.”

Bloom commendably acknowledges the charges leveled against him: “I am weary of being accused of sentimentalizing Falstaff.” He says he’s “been chided for sentimentality when I observe Falstaff betrays and harms no one,” and he pleads with us to enjoy Shakespeare’s rendering of the Fat Knight, adding, “Do not moralize.” The point is not to elicit agreement but to move you emotionally, although his expressive mode is less sentimental than it is spiritual or mystical. He has a jovial appetite for living, thinking, and loving that resembles Falstaff’s in its sheer capaciousness—hence his aside that he’s a “lifelong Falstaffian.”

The Book of Genesis asserts that God made man in his image. One wonders whether Bloom’s ecstatic Bardolatry—he once called Shakespeare “a mortal god”—leads to a different but related conclusion: that Shakespeare, as God, created Bloom in Falstaff’s image. Although age has thinned his once corpulent physique, Bloom is, at times, the boastful embodiment of the bombastic, iconoclastic genius (Sir John) whose chief weakness is his fondness and devotion. At other times, he’s a prophetic seer haunted by the daemon, devoid of merry wit, laughter, or redemptive charm and enthused by ineffable forces to cry out with beautiful despair and angst. His gusto seems ever-present, as does his displayed interiority.

Yet there is no single Bloom. You may think you know him, but then he vanishes as a lost vehemence.

“He has never abandoned me for three-quarters of a century,” Bloom muses of Falstaff, “and I trust will be with me until the end. The true and perfect image of life abides with him: robustly, unforgettably, forever. He exposes what is counterfeit in me and in all others.” Perhaps that’s why Falstaff is so threatening: he lays bare that manipulative, liberated part of ourselves that we don’t acknowledge or even fathom, that’s alienated and estranged from other people, accessible only to the “I myself”—the only thing we know that we know.

A Conversation Regarding Thomas Goode Jones

In America, American History, Books, History, Humanities, Law, liberal arts, Nineteenth-Century America, Politics, Scholarship, The South on November 8, 2017 at 6:45 am

Talking “Of Bees and Boys” on “Writers’ Voices”

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Essays, Humanities, Literature, Writing on October 25, 2017 at 6:45 am

Allen Mendenhall Interviews Anton Piatigorsky, Author of “Al-Tounsi”

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Criminal Law, Fiction, Humanities, Justice, Law, liberal arts, Literature, Novels, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Writing on October 4, 2017 at 6:45 am

AM: Thanks for discussing your debut novel with me, Anton.  It’s titled Al-Tounsi and involves U.S. Supreme Court justices who are laboring over a case about an Egyptian detainee held on a military base in the Philippines. How did you come up with this premise for a novel? 

AP:  I was interested in the intersection between contemporary legal and political issues and the personal lives of the justices. I was particularly impressed by the ways in which the writ of habeas corpus has been used (and suspended) throughout U.S. history.

The Great Writ is a heroic call to responsibility—a demand made by the judiciary for the executive to live up to its obligations to imprisoned individuals. While it has obvious political and social ramifications, it also has philosophical ones. It encourages moral and psychological reckoning: what are our responsibilities to others?

I was excited about writing a novel where two strains—the political and the personal—overlap and blend. I realized that if I fictionalized the important 2008 Guantanamo Bay case Boumediene vs. Bush—by changing key events, decisions and characters—I could use it as the basis for a novel about the Court that explores all my interests.

Anton Piatigorsky

AM: How did you decide to change directions and write about the law?  Did this case just jump out at you?  Your previous writings address a wide variety of subjects but not, that I can tell, law. 

AP:  I came to the law, strangely enough, through religion. I’ve long been interested in how religion functions, and especially in the ways that secular systems mimic religious ones. When I started reading about American law and the U.S. Supreme Court, I saw those institutions as a part of an Enlightenment era secular religion. From this perspective, law is a system of rituals, codes and writings that helps establish an identity for a community, a set of shared values and beliefs, and a way for people to function within the world. I found that fascinating. It inspired all sorts of questions.

What are the general beliefs about people and the world that lie beneath the American legal system? How are those beliefs enacted in cases, courts, and legal writings? How do they play out in the rituals of the Court?  How do the justices of the Supreme Court —who are, in some ways, high priests of the legal world — reconcile conflicts between their personal beliefs and the foundational beliefs of the legal system they guide?

The fictional stories I wanted to tell about justices’ lives grew out of these general questions. Those questions also led me into an investigation of the main case before them.

AM: One of the most fascinating parts of the book, to me, is the Afterword, which consists of the concurring opinion of the fictional Justice Rodney Sykes.

AP: I have always loved novels of ideas, when a character’s emotional journey overlaps with their complex thoughts and beliefs. Whenever that type of fiction really works — as it does with Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov — the character’s philosophy or worldview stands alone as a work of non-fiction. And so the novel becomes part fiction, part critical thought. It functions as a critique on ideas that circulate in the real world.

That’s what I hoped to achieve for Justice Rodney Sykes’s formal opinion in the novel’s Afterword. I wanted Rodney to reach a powerful critique of basic tenets of the American legal system. I wanted him to address what our responsibilities are (or aren’t) towards others in the legal system, and the problems with that system’s fundamental faith in individual actors. In his concurrence, Rodney takes an unorthodox and unlikely stance for a Supreme Court Justice, but that’s what makes it a work of fiction. A novel can be the perfect forum to discuss how a real person might come to a radical decision, and how that decision might revolutionize their thoughts and actions.

AM: Who are your favorite living writers?

AP:  I particularly admire J.M. Coetzee and Alice Munro. I think about their works often while I’m writing and editing my own.

Coetzee has written several fantastic “novels of ideas.” Both Diary of a Bad Year and Elizabeth Costello manage to incorporate far-reaching critiques into their larger stories about characters, and they do so while using imaginative formal techniques. I also love Coetzee’s cold and austere style in his less overtly intellectual books. They’re cleanly written, shockingly honest, and endlessly compelling.

Alice Munro—although it’s almost a cliché to praise her at this point—shows remarkable insight into her characters, gradually revealing their motivations, resentments and surprising decisions without ever erasing their fundamental mysteries as people. Her stories are complex formally, but in such a quiet way that I often don’t notice their structures until I’ve read them a few times. Her writing is a great model for how to show characters’ lives and decisions with efficiency and imagination while maintaining mystery.

AM: Do you intend to continue in the novel form in your own writing?

AP:  Absolutely. I would love to write more legal fiction, as well. I’ve spent years learning about the law, but know that I’ve barely scratched the surface. There are so many potentially interesting legal stories. I’m also at the early stages of a new novel, which is not explicitly about law, but does feel like an outgrowth of Al-Tounsi in certain ways.

AM: I worked for a state Supreme Court justice for over three years, and I agree: there are many interesting legal stories out there, and I’ve found that facts are often stranger than fiction.

AP:  It must be fascinating to work on the diverse cases that roll through a court. I can only imagine how many potential stories you and other lawyers, judges and court workers can recall—ideas for a million novels and movies and plays.

I think legal stories are particularly exciting for fiction because they distill big questions into concrete human situations and personalities. The giant subjects of guilt and innocence, love and betrayal, responsibilities towards others as opposed to ourselves, community or self-reliance, greed, jealousy and ambition all play out in specific facts and events, in the concrete details of a case. It’s just like in a novel. And since the American legal system is, in my mind, an application of an entire Enlightenment, philosophic worldview, these test cases and stories also pose huge philosophical, ethical and moral questions. It’s no coincidence some of the best novels ever written involve detailed legal plots.

AM:  That reminds me of something Justice Holmes once said: “Law opens a way to philosophy as well as anything else.”  But it sounds as if you and I would go further and say it might open a way better than many other things do.

AP:  Law is like applied philosophy; It puts general ideas to the test in the real world. If a philosophy remains theoretical it never really touches what it means to live it, inside it. The answers theoretical philosophy provides are always tentative.

A huge inspiration for my novel was the work of the late French philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas. While Levinas’s writing is often arcane and difficult to get through, I find his thinking to be a powerful and searing indictment of basic Enlightenment principles. While I was writing Al-Tounsi, I used Levinas’s insights—directly—to help me construct Justice Sykes’s final concurrence. It was hugely inspiring to find a concrete way to use this philosophy I have long loved. All the questions and problems I was interested in exploring were present in this genuine legal situation, in the constitutional habeas corpus case, Boumediene vs. Bush, on which I based my fictional case of Al-Tounsi vs. Shaw.

So, yes, I completely agree with you and Justice Holmes!

AM:  So glad we had this opportunity to talk.  Let’s do it again.  

 

 

Review of Brent J. Aucoin’s “Thomas Goode Jones: Race, Politics & Justice in the New South” (University of Alabama Press, 2016)

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, History, Humanities, Law, liberal arts, Politics, Scholarship, Southern History, The South on August 2, 2017 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of the Journal of Faith and the Academy.

Brent J. Aucoin’s new biography is a probing treatment of the neglected figure of Thomas Goode Jones. To some, Jones is discredited because of his ownership of slaves and military leadership in the Confederate Army; to others, he’s a wounded war hero, distinguished jurist, and revered governor who sought reconciliation with former slaves. The truth, as always, is more complex.

Jones does not fit neatly into simplistic categories; he defies the trite labels of current political vocabulary. He even cut across partisan divides in his own day. His story is not a crude morality tale, nor does it contain clear lessons for posterity. Aucoin calls Jones “enigmatic.”  He seeks to consider Jones “holistically.” His studied reflection on Jones reveals a complicated man who’s both congenial and flawed, ahead of his time and yet a definite product of it.

Born in precarious circumstances in what today is Macon, Georgia, Jones had family roots in Virginia. His father, Samuel Goode Jones, worked for the railroad and moved the family from place to place, trying to earn an honest living. They settled in Montgomery when Samuel took a job there as an engineer. Thomas Jones was five at the time.  He and his family attended St. John’s Episcopal Church, downtown, where the pew in which Jefferson Davis worshipped remains intact, the other rows of pews having been replaced long ago.

A romantic childhood it was not. Jones was sent to Virginia to study at academies that fed into the Virginia Military Institute (VMI). He was groomed to be a soldier. By the time he enrolled at VMI, the Civil War had broken out, and he joined the ranks of his professor, Major General Thomas J. Jackson. Jones transferred units and worked his way up the chain of command, barely avoiding death on more than one occasion. Legend has it that, while riding horseback, he saved a wandering child during the heat of battle. This and other tales of heroism earned Jones the reputation as a valiant warrior. General Robert E. Lee himself selected Jones, among others, to deliver the flag of surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse.

After the War, Jones returned to Alabama to begin a new career, or careers.  He married, sired 13 children, and enjoyed a rapid rise to fame and distinction, first as an editor of The Daily Picayune and later as a speaker, lawyer, and Democratic politician.  Believing it was God’s will for the South to fully reintegrate into the Union, he championed reunification, receiving honors and awards for his efforts to this end.  His celebrated 1874 Memorial Day Address was a reconciliatory precursor to that of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. a decade later.

Jones is known, in our day, mostly as a legislator, judge, and governor—and indeed the bulk of Aucoin’s book is dedicated to these periods of Jones’s life. Aucoin pays close attention to Jones’s often contradictory, always multifaceted, and sometimes disturbing views on race and race relations. Following Booker T. Washington, Aucoin says, “Jones eschewed the idea of a political solution to the so-called Negro problem—namely, the passage and enforcement of civil rights legislation—but also . . . opposed the political effort to disenfranchise blacks.”

Jones supported segregation of the races under a separate-but-equal scheme, yet he backed the creation of Alabama State University, a black college founded in 1867. He advocated the education of blacks to varying degrees, but his rhetoric on this topic can sound paternalistic and hollow to the modern ear. That he opposed educational prerequisites to voting, however, suggests he was willing to risk clout and status to take an unpopular stand on behalf of former slaves. He also, quite controversially at the time, sought to abolish the exploitative convict leasing system that carried with it the residual features of slavery.

Aucoin describes Jones’s politicking in great detail, from probable election fraud to campaigns for higher taxes. As governor, Jones decried the mob violence that had become common in Alabama. Later, as a judge, he attempted to charge a lynch mob under federal law.

Jones’s popularity waxed and waned. An economic crisis befell the state during his governorship, and workers from different industries began to strike. This once gallant soldier grew tired and frustrated and lost much of his charisma.  During one ceremony as governor, suffering from “cholera morbus,” he fell from his horse as he tried to dismount. Word of this clumsy incident spread quickly, and Jones was humiliated.

Yet he always drew admirers. His work on race relations, if not always courageous, was at least a step in the right direction. When he died, an unexpected number of blacks attended his funeral, watching solemnly. “Jones may not have been a hero,” Aucoin submits, “or someone on the good side who was unfaltering in his fight against evil, but there appears to be cause for concluding that he distinguished himself from the more rabid racist leaders of the South.”

The institution I work at bears the name of this curious man, whose bust is displayed prominently at the top of the stairs of the entry rotunda, looking down on the busy law faculty and students who come and go without the slightest concern for, or even knowledge of, his life. I’ve placed my copy of Aucoin’s biography beneath that bust with a short note: “Free copy. Learn about a fascinating person.”

It seemed like the right thing to do.

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