Robert Weisberg


I want to examine here the contemporary American scholarship on the relations between law and literature. Along the way, I will try to evaluate the success of particular efforts within the enterprise, but my main goal is broader. I will try to define the nature and purpose of this multifold academic enterprise, and to examine and criticize the larger claims that American legal academics are making (sometimes implicitly) about law and culture through the very act of asserting the validity of the joint study of law and literature.

Very crudely divided, the enterprise has two parts, whose shape and relationship I will discuss at length below. The first part is law-in-literature. This, of course, involves the appearance of legal themes or the depiction of legal actors or processes in fiction or drama. The other, somewhat more amorphous, part is law-as-literature. This involves the parsing of such legal texts as statutes, constitutions, judicial opinions, and certain classic scholarly treatises as if they were literary works. Thus, the law-as-literature critic may assume that there has been conscious authorial control of the semantic and structural complexities of a legal text, and will then subject the intrinsic text to the conventional techniques of "meaning" interpretation normally applied to poems, plays, or novels. Or, somewhat more broadly, and perhaps relaxing the assumption of conscious authorial control, the law-as-literature critic may "situate" legal texts within a culture in a manner parallel to the way literary works are considered parts of a culture's mythologies or moral or spiritual principles.

I should note that, though I will be looking at the law-literature connection from a variety of perspectives, in one key way my terrain is very limited: I am mostly concerned with how the connection is seen to benefit the study of law. Thus, I put aside one large part of law-in-literature: the vast, rich work in conventional historical-based literary scholarship-for example, studies of the criminal justice system in Dickensian England- which is done by literary scholars for the purpose of enhancing appreciation of Dickens in his historical and social context. I put this work aside to the extent that it does not purport to be doing the particular critical or innovative things which self-consciously "interdisciplinary" work claims to do. Such work treats law as an essential part of the social and political world in which fictional and dramatic characters live, and it may often treat law as a trope for the social and moral values of the world of those characters; but it does not necessarily self-consciously reflect on the intersection of law and literature as forms of discourse or as intellectual disciplines.