Law and Literature

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Law and Literature

An interdisciplinary study that examines the relationship between the fields of law and literature, with each field borrowing insights and methods of analysis from the other.

Taught as a comparative studies course in many academic settings, the law and literature curriculum was developed by members of academia and the legal profession who hoped to make law a more humanistic enterprise.

Law and literature is now a burgeoning field of comparative learning. During the 1990s entire scholarly journals were dedicated to the subject. From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, state and national bar associations sponsored many theatrical re-creations of legal questions presented in classic works of literature, including those written by William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens.

The Greek philosopher Plato recognized a relationship between law and literature more than two thousand years ago, writing, "A society's law book should, in right and reason, prove, when we open it, far the best and finest work of its whole literature." In the United States, Plato's works were read along with other classic works of literature as part of the general education of most professionals during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Following the U.S. Civil War (1861–65), however, law was seen less as a humanity and more as a science, and the classic works of Western literature played a lesser role in the education of members of the legal profession.

In 1908 the connection between law and literature was reexamined by the preeminent legal scholar john h. wigmore, who noted the prevalence of trials and legal themes in many of the world's famous novels (see Wigmore 1908, 574). In 1925 Justice benjamin n. cardozo, of the U.S. Supreme Court, published in the Yale Law Review a groundbreaking article titled "Law and Literature," which examined the literary styles of judicial opinions.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the ideas of Wigmore and Cardozo formed the foundation of the modern law and literature movement. During this period law was widely perceived as a myopic, rule-oriented vocation that lacked basic human qualities such as sympathy and empathy. A growing number of law students, lawyers, and judges became disenchanted with the limited perspective of their profession, and began exploring other fields of learning for enlightenment. At the same time, high school teachers, college professors, and graduate students began to migrate from the humanities to the legal profession in search of more practical employment opportunities.

Law and literature studies are separated into three areas. The first area involves law in literature. This area focuses on the legal themes depicted in novels and other literary works. These fictionalized accounts are used as a prism through which actual proceedings in U.S. courtrooms are scrutinized.

The second area involves law as literature. This area studies the educational aspects of actual trials that involve recurring legal disputes over issues such as race relations and the proper role of law enforcement in a free society. This second area of study also analyzes the prose and rhetoric that judges use to explain the legal arguments and conclusions in their judicial opinions.

The third area focuses on law and literature. It compares and contrasts the analytical tools each discipline employs when interpreting a particular text, whether it be a constitution, a statute, a judicial precedent, or a work of literature.

Further readings

Cardozo, Benjamin N. 1925. "Law and Literature." Yale Law Review 14.

Fischer, John. 1993. "Reading Literature/Reading Law: Is There a Literary Jurisprudence?" Texas Law Review 72.

Freedman, James O. 1985. "The Law as Educator." Iowa Law Review 70.

Koffler, Judith. 1989. Review of Forged Alliance: Law and Literature and Law and Literature: A Misunderstood Relation, by Richard A. Posner, and Interpreting Law and Literature: A Hermeneutic Reader, edited by Sanford Levinson and Steven Mailloux. Columbia Law Review 89.

Posner, Richard A. 1995. "Judges' Writing Styles: Do They Matter?" University of Chicago Law Review 62.

——. 1988. Law and Literature: A Misunderstood Relation. Boston: Harvard Univ. Press.

Wigmore, John L. 1908. "A List of Legal Novels." Illinois Law Review 2.


Jurisprudence; Legal Education.