Legal critics have long noted that trials are narratives that arbitrate between conflicting stories about a controversial event and that, consequently, the legal process often takes on a larger cultural meaning through the idea of story. But acknowledgment, as such, does not imply an effective analytical understanding of the connection, and it has not led to a perception of the way in which legal stories become cultural narratives. We can only tell the stories we know how to tell, and the degree of our understanding-our appreciation-depends on issues of narrative and genre often present but usually missed in studies of the legal process.

Famous trials, trials that capture the imagination of a community, are particularly useful for observing the nature of legal-literary-cultural connections and dependencies. This essay uses one such trial, that of John Brown in 1859, to suggest that a better understanding of the way trial narratives and larger communal perceptions intersect is important to legal studies. At issue is a much closer analysis of cultural context than many legal critics are willing to undertake. For example, Ralph Waldo Emerson said of John Brown, on the second day of Brown's trial, "he is a hero of romance & seems to have made this fatal blunder only to bring out his virtues."' Emerson's words are still familiar, but we no longer quite comprehend what they meant at the time. Americans of later generations have accepted Emerson's appraisal, but without an informed sense of the cultural assumptions at work in his language.