Center for Law and Humanities

The Center for Law and Humanities is committed to the interdisciplinary study of law in concert with the fundamental humanistic principles that underpin Western theories of justice. The scholars affiliated with the Center work to bring critical intellectual tools from the humanistic disciplines and the broader arts and sciences to bear on the law in order to understand the evolution of the law, measure the effect of legal developments on society, and explore possible futures for the law emerging from humanistic principles. The Center will invite scholars, legal practitioners, and policymakers of note to speak to the community at large on topics at the intersection of law, humanities, and society. It will also pursue legal and scholarly ventures that further its goals of encouraging critical interdisciplinary study of the law, including periodically publishing scholarly papers, encouraging public discussion of important legal issues, and advancing graduate and undergraduate student research in law and humanities.

Modern Language Association Panel

The CLH is pleased to report the success of its presidential theme panel, "Literature, Law and the Possibility of Justice," held as part of the MLA Annual Meeting in January 2014.  Moderated by Dr. Eric Ashley Hairston, the panel included:  Professor Jo Carillo (J.D.) of the UC Hastings School of Law, Professor Peter Jaros (Ph.D.) of Franklin and Marshall University, and Professor Trinyan Mariano (J.D., Ph.D.) of Rutgers University - New Brunswick.

The panelists have continued their conversation since the conference, and a publication based on the presentations and robust conversation is now in preparation.

Abstracts for the session papers are included below:

Carillo - "Legal Noir"

James M. Cain’s first book, Our Government (1930) is a journalistic dialogue that sounds an alarm about the capture of American legal institutions by extremist groups like the 1920s Ku Klux Klan.  Our Government sold just 300 copies.  Cain’s second work, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), sounds that same alarm, but in fiction.  Postman was a bestseller upon publication; it continues to be read, translated, and studied around the world.  My scholarship examines the ways in which Cain, a nationally recognized journalist, consciously encoded the high profile legal debates that concerned him as a journalist into his first novel.  My work draws extensively on Cain’s private letters, papers, and published journalism, all of which are located at the Library of Congress.  My goal is to make explicit the social and legal debates that concerned Cain as a journalist, a screenwriter, and eventually a novelist; I do this with the aim of brining Cain’s novel to the law school classroom.   My methodology is based on Gerald Graff’s, Professing Literature, but I also engage (mostly through critique) current law and literature scholarship.

Jaros - "Sheppard Lee and Supernatural Law"

What varieties of persons are entitled to justice? This question, perennially vexing in antebellum America, appeared in a particularly revealing form in the 1837-38 Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention, where two aspects of personhood—racialized citizenship and corporate personality—were simultaneously up for debate. The Convention, called to refashion state law for democratizing times, is notorious for its antidemocratic consequences: the disenfranchisement of Pennsylvania’s African Americans. Less well known are the Convention’s extensive debates over the status of banking corporations, in which influential delegates like Charles Jared Ingersoll argued that the legislature should have the power to annul corporate charters. These debates—questions of giving and rescinding rights of personhood and citizenship, whether to natural or artificial persons—exhibit a startling symmetry. Yet this similarity did not elicit discussion at the Convention.

In contrast, racialized and corporate personhood intersect vividly in Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself (1836), by Philadelphian Robert Montgomery Bird. At once a picaresque novel, a supernatural tale, and an expansive view of the 1830s social landscape, Sheppard Lee is narrated by its eponymous hero, who discovers how to move from one body to another. Inhabiting roles including a miserly note-shaver and stock-jobber, a Quaker abolitionist, and a Virginia slave, Sheppard Lee not only participates in the various strata of society whose fate would be contested at the 1837-38 Convention; he also concretizes the aggregate personhood of corporations—what Blackstone described as a “perpetual succession of members.” By juxtaposing the legal personhood of corporations with the political personhood and depersonalization of African Americans, I argue, Bird’s novel sketches an uncanny relationship between these two instances of what Colin Dayan has described as “episodes in making and unmaking persons.” Bird’s novel attends particularly to the processes—from mummification and reanimation to kidnapping and crossing state lines—that turn persons into things and vice versa. Bird’s unpublished notes for the novel, moreover, explicitly frame the novel’s supernatural play at the borders of life and death in terms of the legal doctrine of civil death. By depicting what its narrator calls “faculties of a most marvellous nature,” Sheppard Lee transposes legal debates about giving and rescinding personhood into a supernatural register. Yet although Bird imagines the possibility—alternately utopian and dystopian—of life after civil death, he stops short, both in the novel and in his correspondence, of transforming this prospect into a politics of justice.

Mariano - "Houses of Law:  Reconfiguring Law and Literature in the Formalist Era"

While in recent decades the interdisciplinary study of law and literature has grown tremendously, much of the resulting scholarship mistakenly assumes that law straightforwardly defines itself in official legal texts and can be reduced to a stable set of rules and system of logic.  Literary scholars then attempt to calibrate literary texts to a falsely static and univocal construction of legal history.  This approach obscures the complexity with which literary texts address legal issues and fails to recognize the role that literature plays in creating, interpreting, and maintaining American legal culture.  By contrast, I attempt the lay the groundwork for a new way of reading literature about law, one that begins by attending to the unstable and mutable conditions under which legal discourse lives in literature.

My paper studies literature and law in the tightly constrained post Civil-War era of legal formalism, a period marked by rapid and haphazard legal change as lawmakers strained to respond to the challenges posed by industrialization, urbanization, and racial integration.  This doctrinal transformation happened at the same time that formalist judges and legal scholars gained dominance in their efforts to make law into a science.  Their goal was to produce predictable and uniform legal results through standardizing a process of deductive argumentation.  The formalists eschewed the general policy-making role judges had exercised before the Civil War, claiming instead that legal reasoning can and should be cut off from so-called “extra-legal” considerations such as historical, political, and social context, and case-specific demands of justice and fairness.  However, while the formalists were erasing extra-legal considerations from law, novelists such as Mark Twain, Herman Melville, and Willa Cather were obsessed with dramatizing them in literary discourse.  Thus, the fiction of the day presents a rich archive for studying the potent influence of extra-legal discourses on the processes of official legal meaning-making and illustrates how literature houses and thus serves as a source of law—an essential part of the legal archive rather than a secondary discourse that can only mirror or critique law after-the-fact.


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