Thursday, June 21, 2012

Form in Legal History (Updated)

[I'm moving up this post, which originally appeared on April 2, because, for this month only, Taylor & Francis is granting free access to the issue of Rethinking History that contains Mark Weiner's poems.  DRE.]

Legal historians, like other members of the historical profession, tend to devote more attention to the substance of their scholarship than to its form.  The last few weeks have seen the publication of two exceptional works.  One is the play Owning Hazard, A Tragedy, Barbara Young Welke’s contribution to Law As . . . Theory and Method in Legal History, a symposium issue of the UC Irvine Law Review that gathers together to fruits of a conference organized by UCI's Christopher L. Tomlins.  Another is a series of six poems just published by Mark S. Weiner, Rutgers-Newark Law, as A History of the Common Law, in the (gated) journal Rethinking History 16 (March 2012): 1-15.  (Rethinking History showcases “new ways of presenting and interpreting history”; one of its editors–and the editor of this special issue–is James Goodman, whom many LHB readers know as the author of Stories of Scottsboro.)

The present selection heralds a  book of the same name that, when completed, will include about thirty poems and constitute “a meditation on the history of the Anglo-American legal tradition as the coeval development of historical consciousness and a distinctive awareness of the self.”  Weiner is addressing that topic in another project "The Rule of the Clan," a book that will draw upon his work on Icelandic sagas and is more “straightforward in its presentation of ideas about individualism and state development.”  (You may listen to an installment, delivered a few weeks ago at Brigham Young University's David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies.)  But Weiner also felt the need for a more allusive approach to the topic that draws upon literature and the visual arts.  Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony, “a great poetic treatment of law’s lived presence,” is one of Weiner’s influences; so is MirĂ³’s "Still Life with Old Shoe."  He acknowledges that “in the context of a methodologically rather conservative field” his techniques may seem “radical, if not completely mad”; still he is willing to risk some head-shaking because he is convinced that inattention to the “cultural and aesthetic foundations” of liberal constitutionalism is making it vulnerable to assaults from the left and the right.  He writes, “Historians have a vital role to play in developing new modes of expression that can ground a liberal legal consciousness in as wide a spectrum of literary and aesthetic movements as possible.”

The poems appearing in Rethinking History include one found in the first pages of Bishop Stubbs's Constitutional History of England.  Others were inspired by a famous passage in Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, children's doggerel, the "mnemonic triads of Welch law," a ghazal, and the aforementioned MirĂ³.

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