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Literature and the Law

ENGL 566.640

This seminar will explore the relationship between two of our most powerful forms of social discourse, literature and the law. The two share conspicuous similarities: a tendency to represent, interpret, and criticize flesh-and-blood interactions; a reliance on story-telling; a fondness for precedent, evidence, and testimony. Yet the two are perhaps even more frequently in conflict with one another, particularly over questions fundamental to both -- how language works, what constitutes evidence and truth, and what kinds of advocacy and representation are desirable or harmful.

Readings will begin in the ancient world and move forward chronologically to the present day. For the first weeks of the course, we'll explore the literary and legal bases of the ancient and medieval world in authors like Homer, Aquinas, Dante, and Machiavelli. How did these writers define fundamental terms like authority and jurisdiction? How did their different legal codes conceptualize issues still controversial today, like habeas corpus, trial, and torture?  Around week five or six we'll move from these foundational texts forward in time to that most powerful legal and literary fiction, the republic of letters, asking how this modern fictional space underwrites our sense both of an independent judiciary and what we most often call "the public sphere" or "the court of public opinion." What do we expect of our laws or our literature? How do each manage to stay alive for posterity? What kinds of interpretive approaches should govern both? How might literature and law be said to regulate one another? Along the way we'll explore the law-making qualities of literature (its tendency to posit artificial forms onto lived experience even as it insists that those forms have value) and the literariness of the law (its ability to turn fictions into enforceable realities and its fondness for resolving conflict). Aside from the authors already listed above, our readings will likely include works by Sophocles, Shakespeare, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Jefferson, Olaudah Equiano, Jane Austen, Wilkie Collins, Herman Melville, Angela Carter, Vladamir Nabokov, and Richard Brautigan, as well as several legal cases and critical essays. Required work will be two essays of around 8-10 pages each.