What does it mean for literary study to be "in pursuit of the law"? What is at stake for literary critics in the study of the law, whether we are speaking of legal studies or the historical life of law (legal codes, forms, enactments, performances)? How is it that law continually eludes literary study, both methodologically, in the way that scholars of literature construct disciplinary limits, and temporally, in the way that scholars of literature imagine the law always to be before or behind? And if we understand "pursuit" in its medieval sense as "prosecute" or "petition", we might ask, how does literary study become legal study in its examination of the category of law? In what way does it interrogate or seek to overcome the law? Finally, how might the tension between "law" and "literature" help us rethink the ways we periodize literary history (in this case, medieval England vs. 18th- and 19th-century America), as well as the way that we distinguish literary formalism from cultural history?
Topics may include civil death (dominion); proof (motives and evidence for character); juridical fictions (corporate bodies, civil persons, legal slaves); ritual (precedents, remains, histories); and contract (property and possession). Texts may include Geoffrey Chaucer, The Clerk's Tale; The N-Town Joseph and Mary Play; St. Erkenwald; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; William Thorpe, Testimony; William Godwin, Caleb Williams; Poe, Selected Tales; Herman Melville, Bartleby, Billy Budd, Benito Cereno, and his Civil War poems; Locke, excerpts from "Essay on Human Understanding"; Henry Bracton, On the Laws and Customs of England; Marsilius of Padua, Defensor Pacis; records of the Norwich heresy trials; "Ruffin vs. Commonwealth"; "Avery vs. Everett"; "Dred Scott vs. Sanford"; and "The Sims Case".