Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Great Gatsby and The Fashion of Literature

My visit at legalhistoryblog is drawing to a close (perhaps Mary fears that I'll never leave!), but Dan Filler's post over at thefacultylounge on why we teach the death penalty (one hypothesis is that profs find it interesting) and this morning's New York Times story on the shifting fortunes of The Great Gatsby (it's at a high part of the sine curve right now, up from near obscurity in the 1950s0) reminds me that what's in fashion changes over time.

So why does seemingly every high school student read The Great Gatsby? Well, in part because Robert Redford played him the 1974 movie. Rather similar to the renaissance of Herman Melville's Billy Budd. I take it Billy Budd (which wasn't published until the twentieth century--the profits from sales when it was in copyright went to Harvard's History of American Civilization Program, I am told) was popularized in legal circles by Robert Cover's Justice Accused. (I might have thought that Cover would also use Harriet Beecher Stowe's obscure Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp for the same purpose: to tell the conflicts that judges get into between their antislavery feelings and the proslavery law. And I'm increasingly thinking that there's a pretty important story to tell about proslavery judges (like Henry Lumpkin of Georgia) who reach antislavery results.

All this causes me to wonder what other literature is out there waiting to be discovered, particularly what other literature is out there waiting to tell us something about jurisprudence. Couple of suggestions (all from the nineteenth century) are Catharine Sedgwick's Clarence, James Fenimore Cooper's trilogy on the anti-rent movement, and Nathaniel Beverly Tucker's George Balcombe.