Lawyers and Literature
James R. Elkins

Exercise 1-3 | Assumptions about Literature

"In his memoir, ‘The Dogwood Tree: A Boyhood,' John Updike comments on the innocence of his youthful assumptions about art, religion and politics, yet as a man he reports he has found no certain substitute for those assumptions." [William H. Pritchard, English Papers: A Teaching Life 1 (Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 1995)]

What assumptions about literature do you bring with you to Lawyers and Literature? Would you describe your assumptions as innocent? In what way are your assumptions framed and shaped by the fact that you studied, or did not study, literature as an undergraduate?

If asked to describe yourself as a reader of literature, how would you try to do so?

Is it of any importance to you to try to define literature?

James Boyd White argues that "to read the law as if it were literature, that is to ask of this apparently nonliterary discourse questions about tone, character, form, and structure that are drawn from the reading of literature, may do much to lead us both to a clearer sense of the special resources and limits of this discourse and to a clearer sense of the possibilities of our own art. The object is not to deny what is special about the law but to understand it more clearly." [James Boyd White, What Can a Lawyer Learn from Literature?, 102 Harv. L. Rev. 2014, 2023, n. 51 (1989)]

In what way would your legal education have a different bearing, and a different feel to it, if your teachers had presented the law to you as a form of literature?

Note: Some of us would find it embarrassing to even begin to try to describe literature (knowing the reverence with which it is held in academic circles), much less our relationship to it. (You can be assured I would be as reluctant as you to appear before a television camera and attempt to define literature and make a claim for its importance!)


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