The 2018–2020 theme at the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies is “Law & Legalities,” a topic that includes the limits of law as well as its pervasiveness. The Davis Center sponsors residential fellowships each year on our theme, for either a year or one term. This year our group has consisted of nine fellows besides me and Natasha Wheatley, an affiliated Princeton faculty member: George Aumoithe (postdoctoral fellow), Tatiana Borisova (National Research University High School of Economics, St. Petersburg), Jonathan Connolly (postdoctoral fellow), Tom Johnson (University of York), Lena Salaymeh (Tel Aviv Law School), Franziska Seraphim (Boston College), Mitra Sharafi (University of Wisconsin Law School), Elizabeth Thornberry (Johns Hopkins University), and Barbara Welke (University of Minnesota).
Through our various research projects situated in different places and centuries, we are especially interested in examining how legal, illegal, quasi-legal, and extra-legal forms of social order have interacted. In order to extend our conversations beyond Princeton, each of this year’s fellows contribute a perspective on this issue. We asked the 2018-19 fellows to reflect upon the following question: how has your time at the Davis Center led to new insights about the reach and limits of law and legalities? Our essays are divided into two groups, one on our cases, and another on our methods, each of which will appear in a subsequent post. But as an introduction, we feature the piece by Barbara Welke (University of Minnesota), which offers a more personal reflection on the year’s leave experience.
-Angela N. H.Creager, Director
Some fifty-plus years ago, Tillie Olsen opened an essay titled “Silences” published in Harper’s Magazine, saying “literary history and the present are dark with silences: some the silences for years by our acknowledged great; some silences hidden; some ceasing to publish after one work appears; some the never coming to book form at all.” The quote she included from Melville’s “famous” letter to Hawthorne – “I am so pulled hither and thither by circumstances. The calm, the coolness, the silent grass growing mood in which a man ought always to compose, that can seldom be mine” – might as easily be said of academia and not just for men.
This is an unexpected opening, I know, to what was supposed to have been my reflections on the Davis Center theme, but given the limitations of space, I am electing to address what may be the more important underlying question of the conditions which enable any of us to truly think or create original work at all. I am privileged to hold a tenured job, to come from an institution with smart, generous colleagues and a rich intellectual culture. Still, this year has been freeing. The Law & Legalities theme at the Davis Center is, alas, only for two years, but it highlights the importance of residential fellowships that take one out of the worlds in which we are “pulled hither and thither,” that purposefully gather scholars across rank from post-docs to full professors and across temporal and geographic fields, bound only loosely by a theme and free them to think and create.
For me, the productivity has been not only in conversations with other Davis Center Fellows and Postdocs, but equally generative conversations with a broad range of others from graduate students to emeriti faculty. With days spent largely in the hard – I might say what often feels like the impossible task of writing – I’ve spent evenings in the renewing work of reading creative works of history, but also creative non-fiction, memoir, essay, and poetry, works through which I imagine broadened possibilities for the writing of legal history. The combined result has been a welter of new ideas and a number of new chapters. As I realized years ago in leading the Hurst Institute, the genius of the thing was in part its structure, coupled with outstanding administrative support that freed fellows individually and collectively to think. The same has been true here, coupled with generous, inspired leadership. I would urge us as a field to think how we might create (and fund!) more such short- and longer-termed, residency and non-residency, themed, cross-rank, cross-field legal history writing hunkers – shelters from being “pulled hither and thither” in which we might think and create.
Photo (L to R): Tom Johnson, Liz Thornberry, George Aumoithe, Barbara Welke, Lena Salaymeh, Tataiana Borisova, Angela Creager, Natasha Wheatley, Jon Connolly
(posted by Mitra Sharafi)