Thursday, April 12, 2007

Ferguson, The Trial in American Life

The Trial in American Life by Robert A. Ferguson, Columbia, has been published by The University of Chicago Press. Here's the info:
Since the earliest days of our nation, high-profile trials have captivated the American imagination. But such trials are more than mere spectacle: by providing a forum for discussion of contentious issues, they also serve as public ceremonies and barometers of thought. In The Trial in American Life, Robert Ferguson argues that we can only understand the importance of pivotal trials by examining their public impact as well as their legal significance.

In a bravura performance that ranges from Aaron Burr to O.J. Simpson, Ferguson traces both the legal implications and the cultural ripples of prominent American legal battles. He brings together courtroom transcripts, newspaper accounts, and the work of such writers as Emerson, Thoreau, William Dean Howells, and E. L. Doctorow to show what happens when courtrooms are forced to cope with unresolved communal anxieties and make legal decisions that change how America thinks about itself. How do such trials mushroom into major public dramas with fundamental ideas at stake? Why did outcomes that we now see as unjust enjoy community support at the time? At what point does overexposure undermine a trial’s role as a legal proceeding?
Ultimately, such questions lead Ferguson to the issue of modern press coverage of courtrooms. While acknowledging that media accounts can skew perceptions, Ferguson argues forcefully in favor of television coverage—and he takes the Supreme Court to task for its failure to grasp the importance of this issue. Trials must be seen to be understood, but Ferguson reminds us that we have a duty, currently ignored, to ensure that cameras serve the court rather than the media.
As comfortable with the intricacies of courtroom communications as with the law’s resonance throughout American literature, Ferguson in The Trial in American Life weaves his deep knowledge of American history, law, and culture into a fascinating book of tremendous contemporary relevance.
Ferguson's case studies include: The Punishing of Aaron Burr, John Brown: Defendant on the Loose, Mary Surratt on the Altar of National Identity, Traitors in Name Only: The Haymarket Defendants, Killing the Rosenbergs.

Reviews:
“A distinguished law professor, accomplished historian, and fine writer, Robert Ferguson is uniquely qualified to narrate and analyze high-profile trials in American history. This is a superb book and a tremendous achievement. The chapter on John Brown alone is worth the price of admission.”—Judge Richard Posner

“We are all aware that trials can be key moments in American cultural life. Robert Ferguson shows why. Building on his exceptional knowledge of American history and literature as well as his legal expertise, he makes us understand specific contexts and discourses that make a trial matter. This is a book about some of our most central cultural dramas, from Aaron Burr to the Rosenbergs—and about the future of courtroom drama.”—Peter Brooks, Sterling Professor of Comparative Literature, Yale University


To read an excerpt, click here.

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