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46 - Law and the American novel

from PART THREE - MODERNISM AND BEYOND

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 July 2011

Leonard Cassuto
Affiliation:
Fordham University, New York
Clare Virginia Eby
Affiliation:
University of Connecticut
Benjamin Reiss
Affiliation:
Emory University, Atlanta
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Summary

From Hugh Henry Brackenridge's Modern Chivalry (1792–1815) to William Gaddis's A Frolic of His Own (1994), legal figures and themes are nearly ubiquitous in American fiction. Similarities between the two discourses suggest a reason why. Law and fiction both use narrative form to establish or challenge values, norms, and ideas of order. As Robert Cover, a legal scholar, observes, “No set of legal institutions exists apart from the narratives that locate it and give it meaning.” Allan Hutchinson expands on Cover's theme: “We are never not in a story. History and human action only take on meaning and intelligibility within their narrative context and dramatic settings.” As storytelling enterprises, law and fiction offer ways to “mediate our engagement in the world with others,” providing “the possibilities and parameters of our self-definition and understanding.” Given the overlap between law and fiction as normative and narrative projects, the presence of law in literary narratives and of literary narratives in legal reasoning seems unsurprising, even inevitable. Because of the heterogeneity and changing composition of the American populace, legal and literary narratives provide particularly important means of formulating fundamental values, such as equality and justice.

Novelists are also plainly drawn to the peculiarities of the law: its forms, specialized rules and vocabulary, as well as its need to be predictable and to furnish a degree of certainty in its results. Law novels often feature descriptions of the formalities of courtroom procedure and specialized concepts and phrases (e.g., the title of Gaddis's A Frolic of His Own points to doctrine limiting the liability of a master for the wrongful behavior of a servant acting outside the scope of his agency).

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2011

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