Friday, August 16, 2019

Using fiction to teach legal history

Do you include fiction on your legal history syllabi? This summer, we asked many of you what novels, short stories, plays, and other kinds of fiction you use to teach legal history (H/t: LSA Law & History CRN and Twitter). This is a sequel of sorts to our posts on using film to teach legal history in summer 2017 (here and here).
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Here are the responses (lightly edited for readability). 

Happy reading, everyone!
  • Denise Arista on indigenous legal history: Some indigenous futurism or post apocalyptic Sci-fi which suggest the resurgence of "non-normative" extra Euro-American legal regimes may be a good place to teach. Some of us work in the intersection of colonial and indigenous customary law and language, these things though rich, are rarely focused upon. 
    • Begin perhaps with the collection Walking the Clouds look at the work of Grace Dillon (Anishinaabe) The work of Professor Aaron Mills who is working in Anishinaabe Constitutionalism at McGill University may be an interesting pairing. 
    • Rebecca Roanhorse? Look at the work being done on the interface between humans and AI. We wrote an essay, not explicitly about law but on indigenous AI, for a collection "Making Kin With the Machines," forthcoming, MIT press
    • Indigenous people are having everywhere to deal with issues of climate change, especially in the Pacific, the central US and Canada. So questions of territoriality, customary law and practice, and environmental justice need to be addressed, as well as the nuclear Pacific Issues in Micronesia, and Tahiti. In many of these places the "evidence" is in our customary chants and knowledge----not precedent. 
    • The work of John Scalzi on Disability law and futures, start your searches on international law and Sci-fi, or law and Sci-fi. The work of Octavia Butler and obviously Margaret Atwood. 
    • If you want to go a different route look at video gaming and indigenous futurity. And coming soon, AR/VR. Also: questions of IP and cultural appropriation. 
  • Evelyn Atkinson: I really like to use "A Jury of Her Peers" by Susan Glaspell when I'm teaching about women's exclusion from the legal system (I got the idea from Amy Dru Stanley who uses it in her legal history class).  It's a murder mystery where the two female characters figure out at the end why a wife killed her husband (domestic abuse) based on little clues around her house, while the male sheriff can't figure it out.  It's short and a really engaging read (there's also a play and a very slow movie from the 1970's).
  • Pat Bell: for History of American Legal Education: The Paper Chase
  • Peter Candy (@Pete_Candy): On the Augustan marriage legislation, I've used Graves' 'I, Claudius'. Adds a bit of lightness and comedy before getting down to the law.
  • @cszabla: I haven't taught it but one that comes to mind re colonial legal history is Achebe's "No Longer at Ease," which involves a Nigerian getting a legal education in Britain that he then gets arrested for taking bribes to pay for when he becomes part of the colonial civil service.
Lots more after the jump:
  • Adriana Chira (@AdriChira): 
    • Antonio di Benedetto’s Zama or the amazing cinematic rendition by Lucrecia Martel. It is told from the perspective of a judge living on a periphery of the Spanish empire in the 18th c. Juxtaposed with Enlightenment on Trial by Bianca Premo. For a seminar on Law in the Atlantic World next spring. 
    • Also Kafka’s Penal colony in conjunction with Miranda Spieler’s Empire and Underworld.
  • Elizabeth Dale: 
    • Ada Palmer’s books (now a trilogy, though a fourth book is coming soon) rest on a very complex constitution order that deals with a world without nation states and multi-layered identity. I’ve toyed with using one is a class, but they’re pretty complicated so it would probably need to be a seminar.
    • Also, here is a syllabi to an interdisciplinary legal history course I’m teaching to freshmen this fall. You’ll see here that we’re reading poems and a play.
  • Seán Patrick Donlan (@spdonlan): Perhaps JM Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) or Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's The Leopard (1958)?
  • The Faculty Lounge (@FacLoungeBlog): Herman Melville, Billy Budd
  • Sarah Ghabrial (@sarahghabrial): Doesn’t quite count as fiction — and actually hard to classify? — but this year I assigned readings from Sven Lindqvist’s ‘Terra Nullius’ and ‘Exterminate All the Brutes.’
  • @gilletgr: I’m a historian, though not a legal historian. But I remember being transported when @NewBlackMan assigned Derrick Bell’s faces at the bottom of the well for his intro to African American studies class
  • Will Hanley (@HanleyWill): Tawfiq al-Hakim, Diary of a Country Prosecutor. Absurdity of law in British Egypt. 
    • Response from Rohit De (@itihaasnaama):  I taught it and it worked very well, especially when paired with historical work on Cornelia Sorabji (see Richard Sorabji, Opening Doors: The Untold Story of Cornelia Sorabji). 
    • Response from Mitra Sharafi (@mjsharafi): The piece I've assigned on Cornelia Sorabji is Mary Jane Mossman, "Gender and Professionalism in Law: The Challenge of (Women's) Biography," Windsor Year Book of Access to Justice 27 (2009), 19-34
  • Sanjay Hegde (@sanjayuvacha): Thackeray Mansions by Shankar. The author started life as a clerk to Barwell, who was probably the last English Barrister to practice in the Calcutta High Court. Barwell left after India's independence. I would also recommend John Mortimer's Rumpole Series, as great literature and great law. There is an entire book to write on Law & Urdu poetry, especially Akbar Allahabadi who was a magistrate in British India & Barrister Mohammed Iqbal.
  • Nate Holdren (@n_hold): 
    • I've taught a first year seminar where we read an historical overview of slavery in the US (usually Berlin's Generations of Captivity) then two works of contemporary historical fiction (Morrisson's A Mercy and Anderson's Chains), then two 19th century abolitionist works, Uncle Tom's Cabin and Twelve Years A Slave, which is narrative nonfiction. Those four books are in chronological order by the time period they are set in. With each, the students discuss and often write about the degree to which the book has verisimilitude, using Berlin, and also the ways in which the book gets at aspects of enslavement that Berlin didn't discuss in as much detail - the students tend to focus on issues of experience. The books all also have themes of gender as a loud subtext in ways that the Berlin book doesn't thematize as much; sometimes student pick up on that as well. When we get to Uncle Tom's Cabin and 12 Years A Slave I prompt the students to think about why abolitionists used narrative as a tool, why these narrative works were controversial and powerful in their day, and why it matters that 12 Years was nonfiction, and if it matters if maybe bits of it were slightly fictionalized.
    • I also teach a class on the legal history of slavery, where we read Whitehead's Underground Railroad and Bisson's Fire on the Mountain. With Underground Railroad I approach it similarly, re: issues of verisimilitude. That book also draws connections between enslavement in the US and Nazi Germany; we use that as a jumping off point for discussing issues of how to recall atrocity in the present, and how enslavement should be (but often is not) discussed in the present. I also have the students use the Whitehead to think about ways that law shaped society, and the stakes of that shaping in individual lives. It's fiction but it's a fictional picture of a world where law operates to shape society and at that level it is a work of social realism. We also use that book to discuss how law often sanitizes violence - it's an upsetting book because it depicts a lot of awful things. Juxtaposed to the sometimes downright boring language of the law, it helps bring out for students how the law talks around some ugly realities. I use the Bisson to talk about contingency and about the significance of the raid on Harpers Ferry. It's a science fiction book that tacks back and forth between 1859, 1909, and 1959, all in a world where the raid succeeded.
  • James Jaffe: When I first started teaching, 30+ years ago, I taught Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis - a murder mystery that takes place in Ancient Rome. That was the most fun. Of course, Thomas Hardy for Law, sex, and gender (Jude or more often Tess) was go-to for Victorian Britain.
  • Coel Kirkby (@CoelKirkby): The Grimm brother's fairy tales (they started gathering them as law students working for von Savigny).
    • Response from Donal Coffey (@DonalkCoffey): I'm pretty sure Constantin Willems who works in Marburg recently gave a presentation on the Brothers Grimm in Bonn.
  • Felicia Kornbluh: I’ve used 12 Angry Men (play or film could work) and Judgment at Nuremberg to illustrate aspects of the post-wwII US legal imaginary.  Thought about but not taught Wilkie Collins The Law and The Lady (1875).  Oh - and have used the classic Hollywood movie Adam’s Rib.  I also sometimes use a bit of Charles Reich’s astounding memoir The Sorcerer of Bolinas Reef and the literary nonfiction Which Side Are You On? by Thomas Geoghegan. 
  • Anne Kornhauser (@clioprof3) (on imperial law): Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians
  • Daniel LaChance (@dwlachance): Susan Glaspell’s short story “A Jury of Her Peers” has worked well in my survey.
  • Elizabeth Lhost (@elizainlucknow): I had students read Kafka's The Trial at the beginning of the semester and then used it in later weeks to address different ideas about law—expectations, experiences, role of experts, presumed guilt vs. presumed innocence, etc.
  • Jessica Lowe (@jessicaklowe): I teach To Kill a Mockingbird in my Crime and Punishment in American History seminar.  I teach it alongside David Garland’s article on lynching, “Penal Excess and Surplus Meaning.”
  • Giovanna Montenegro (@MonGiovanna): I am not a legal historian, but I love teaching Patrick Chamoiseau’s Solibo Magnificent. It has the “whodunnit” aspect plus a critique of the remnants of France’s legal and colonial system with its worshipping of French over creole of the police brutality emblematic of the colonial justice system. And it’s funny and a pleasure to read.
  • Karen Pearlston: For my seminar, Private Law Since 1700: Economy and Family, I might look to Bronte’s Shirley
  • Gautham Rao (US legal history): Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Melville’s The Confidence Man, Wright’s Native Son
  • Donald Rogers: A now old (1982) book of essays that I found useful to identify literary works with the legal themes is Carl Smith, et al., Law and American Literature in the then Borzoi collection.  A famous literary work that I found to provoke thoughts on the character of law is Franz Kafka's The Trial, smartly analyzed by Douglas E. Litowitz in "Franz Kafka's Outsider Jurisprudence," Law & Social Inquiry 27/1 (Winter 2002): 103-38.
  • Lucy Salyer: I have used “A Jury of Her Peers,” Susan Glaspell, written in 1917.  I have also used the movie, Adam’s Rib.  I thought the Iranian movie, A Separation, about a woman who seeks a divorce was brilliant at showing a legal system different from the U.S., (and much more), but I’m certainly not an expert on Iranian law so would defer to others with greater knowledge.  If you’re interested in memoirs:  I have not read this yet, but intend to -- “The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict,” by Austin Reed – a memoir, not fiction, which is billed as “the earliest known prison memoir by an African American writer,”  by a man born in the 1820s. Long ago, I used Religion and Domestic Violence:  The Memoirs of Abigail Abbot Bailey, a memoir from the 18th century about domestic violence which highlights the tenuous legal position of married women in that era and also competing systems of “law” (religion).
  • Rupali Samuel (@PaliSamuel): Mahasweta Devi’s “Draupadi” [short story involving sexual assault, Bengali trans. into English in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ed. Breast Stories -MS]
  • Reuel Schiller: 
    • I’ve had students read selections from Chester Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go when I teach about civil rights and labor rights in the U.S. during the Second World War.
    • It’s not entirely fiction, but I’ve used the chapter of Twain’s Life on the Mississippi describing the steamship explosion that killed his brother when I teach about the development of tort law in nineteenth-century America.
    • Finally, though I haven’t done it, I know folks use excerpts from Uncle Tom’s Cabin when teaching about slavery.  I believe Robert Cover was known for having his students read Melville’s Billy Budd when he discussed the Fugitive Slave Act and judicial formalism.  (Melville allegedly based Captain Vere on his father-in-law, Lemuel Shaw, the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.)
  • Adam Shapiro (@TryingBiology): I've had students watch/read Inherit the Wind and had them write their own similar plays based on a hypothetical 21st-c. evolution trial.
  • Mitra Sharafi (@mjsharafi):
    • One idea on Caribbean slavery & sexual violence c.1800, although the James novel is probably too graphic for classroom use: Burnard, "Theater of Terror: Domestic Violence in Thomas Thistlewood's Jamaica, 1750-1786" in Daniels & Kennedy, eds. Over the Threshold + Marlon James' Book of the Night Women
    • On law and colonialism: I've used opening chapter of Orwell's Burmese Days and I believe Binyamin Blum @legalhistorian has used his short story, "Shooting an Elephant"  Incidentally, here's my syllabus for undergrad Law & Colonialism course.
    • More fiction I've assigned in my undergrad course on law & colonialism: Norval Morris, “The Brothel Boy: A Fragment of a Manuscript” (by Eric Blair AKA George Orwell), Occasional Papers from the Law School, U. of Chicago, No. 18 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1982), 1-17
    • And another Orwell favorite for teaching (blurs fiction and memoir) is anti-colonialism passage in The Road to Wigan Pier @pp.143-8: "I was in the Ind. Police 5 yrs, and by the end...I hated the imperialism I was serving with a bitterness which I probably cannot make clear..."
    • Tayeb Salih's Season of Migration to the North could be fantastic on law and colonialism--it is one of the strangest and most memorable novels I've read. The main character, a Sudanese student in Britain, is tried for murdering his English wife. Trans. Laila Lalami.
    • Barbara Welke's play about the flammable cowboy suits is excellent to assign on corporate liability, consumer protection, and the history of flammable fabrics. Here is the scholarly article version/companion.
    • Sujata Massey is partway through a new detective novel series featuring Perveen Mistry, a female Parsi lawyer in 1920s Bombay. The Widows of Malabar Hill (vol.1) and The Satapur Moonstone (vol.2) draw upon the work of legal historians, including my own. 
  • Prabhakar Singh (@DrPrabSingh): Amitabh Ghosh, The Flood of Fire (2015) for China, India and trade imperialism and Keefe-Fox, The Siamese Tears (2016) for semi-colonialism and international law elective.
  • Winnifred Fallers Sullivan: William Ian Miller on the sagas—especially Bloodtaking and peacemaking. And Isaac Bashevis Singer, In My Father’s Court. Wonderful book to teach on legal and religious pluralism, internal and external, and their intersection 
  • Philip Thai (@philip_thai): I’ve used crime stories and ballads to explore Chinese legal culture and popular attitudes toward law, justice, and courts. Whodunnit stories with upright and shrewd Judge Dee a favorite in traditional Chinese society and many legal history seminars. 
  • Vicky Woeste (@Victoria_Woeste): Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) on social construction of Jewish identity; Glory (1988) on a ton of themes including labor conditions of Union soldiers; Do The Right Thing (1988) on structural racism
  • Nurfadzilah Yahaya (@nfyahaya): In my class on legal history last year, I screened Kurosawa's Rashomon & paired it with Robert Hegel's translation & compilation of case histories in Eighteenth-Century China. My students discussed how historians should approach first-hand legal testimonies. It was great fun.
  • Charles Zelden: I use the Ox Bow Incident (book or movie) on the necessities of legal procedure.  It works very well.  
Then, moving into Law and Literature: 
  • Jonathan Chausovsky: There is a dated a two volume set that might be worth mining: Ephraim London, ed. The World of Law (New York: Simon and Schuster),1960. Vol. I is The Law in Literature. It includes pieces by Cervantes, Dickens, Chekov, Twain, Balzac, and many more. I particularly like Mark Twain, "An Act of God in Nevada." (It is short [and absurd] illustration of natural law! Vol. II is The Law as Literature. It includes works by H.L. Mencken, Plato (Apology), Gandhi, Camus, Bacon, etc. Robert H. Jackson's "Closing Address in the Nuremberg Trial" is included. 
  • Sagnik Dutta (@sagniksutta): J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (for an undergraduate Law and Literature course)
  • Reuel Schiller: Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy has a lot of great material about constitution-making in a context that implicates many issues of constitutional history: popular sovereignty, rights-thinking, the relationship between social structures and law.  That said, we may be moving out of the legal history classroom and into the "Law and Literature" classroom as we get further and further into speculative fiction.

And here is how some use fiction in doctrinal law, sociology, and other teaching:
  • Elizabeth Emens (@ElizFEmens): Very interested in how any of us use literature in teaching across fields, having used #KazuoIshiguro to teach Employment Discrimination and a lot of memoir in teaching #DisabilityLaw, including #SimiLinton and #ElynSaks
    • Response from Daniel Del Gobbo (@danieldelgobbo): #KazuoIshiguro to teach employment?! …He’s one of my favourites, but the most common use of his work that I’ve seen is in the legal ethics and professionalism context — training lawyers to act more like Miss Kenton in The Remains of the Day.
  • Hjalmar Newmark (@newmark_hjalmar): Not a legal historian though I used “Chronic of a Death foretold” in Sociology of Law to describe incomplete social differentiation. 
  • Dan Sharfstein: The Round House by Louise Erdrich — perfect for Federal Indian Law. The Turner House by Angela Flournoy — amazing Property novel
Finally, an interesting model for assignments that combine fiction and history:
  • Vilja Hulden (@vhulden): I’m neither a legal historian nor assign much fiction, but I make my American history survey (through 1865) class write an imaginary life history. Some have done a gorgeous job. Assignment here: (link: 

For more ideas, see the full Twitter thread here

Many thanks to everyone who contributed (please let me know if I inadvertently missed your comment.) If you have other ideas, we hope you’ll add them to the comments section below.

--Mitra Sharafi