Brooks’ courses blend law & literature
Readings range from Kafka and Hawthorne to Brown vs. the Board of Education
Photo by Dan Addison
|Peter Brooks' take on law & literature
By Matt Kelly
Both law and literature generate stories with drama and tension.
Peter Brooks, director of the new Program for Law and Humanities, examines their narrative power in courses he teaches at U.Va.
This fall, in a course on Law and Humanities: Reading and Interpretation, Brooks will use both literary texts and court cases to put the law back into a cultural dialogue.
“It is relevant to students to put their studies in a broader context,” said Brooks, who wants his courses to attract English graduate students from Arts & Sciences as well as law students to help build bridges between the Law School and Central Grounds.
|PETER BROOKS’ TAKE ON LAW & LITERATURE
|Laws affect everyone in society. Literature is central to the human condition. Both are bound in text, said Brooks, who approaches law as a good story, reading court rulings for their narrative value.
While attorneys and judges make a considerable use of narrative, they don’t often discuss it, he said.
“I am trying to open the study of law to other fields of knowledge. If you go back to the origins of law, with the Greeks, it was aligned with rhetoric, speaking and writing. Rhetoric was originally designed to present arguments in court. As [the law] became more professional, it was closed off from this.”
Teaching literature to law students can be slow going at first, Brooks admitted, in part because law students have been taught to read cases by skimming texts and extracting specific points.
He insists his students read entire decisions to get a better sense of the whole story and its narrative value. Among the decisions he uses are Brown vs. the Board of Education; Lawrence vs. Texas, which was a recent ruling on an antisodomy statute; and Leocal vs. Ashcroft, which considered the question of how statutes should be interpreted in plain language. He balances reading legal cases against the writings of Franz Kafka, Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mary Shelley and Grimm’s fairy tales.
Brooks is“catalytic for us,” said Daniel R. Ortiz, the John Allan Love Professor of Law, who will team with Brooks to teach law and humanities at the Law School this fall. “We get blinkered by disciplinary constraints,” he said. “It is hard to get distance from these constraints if you are working within them.” Working with Brooks will “expand my way of thinking,” he added.
Students will get a better understanding of the law and “why we do the things we do,” Ortiz said. “It will make [law students] better lawyers and better people.”
Students also should gain a better appreciation of storytelling.
In earlier courses Brooks has taught to law and graduate students, “the law students thought the grad students had some arcane knowledge that others did not possess,” he said, “It took a while to straighten that out.”
Brooks, 67, who describes himself as a “restless scholar,” was first lured to the law in 1990 by Yale colleague Paul Gewirtz, the Potter Stewart Professor of Law. “We had lunch weekly,” Brooks said. “He knew of my interest in narrative analysis, so he fed me court cases.” From that came the courses that Brooks now teaches at U.Va.
Brooks has published a number of books, from “Reading for the Plot,” to “Troubling Confessions, Speaking Guilt in Law and Literature” to “Law’s Stories: Narrative and Rhetoric in the Law.” In his latest works, the “restless scholar” has veered from the law. The just-published “Realist Vision” examines the realist movement in literature and painting in the 19th century, when many believed art and literature should reflect reality. He also has finished the first draft of “Henry James Goes to Paris,” about the year James spent in the French capital from November 1875 to November 1876, at age 32.
“James meets all the important novelists of the time,” said Brooks, who has always been fascinated by 19th century authors such as George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Honore de Balzac and Gustave Flaubert.
“They are still a wonderful optic for looking at life, ” he added. “They tell us who we are.”
Brooks also has penned a novel. “World Elsewhere,” published in 1999, is a historical novel of a young man who signs on for a voyage that will lead to the French discovery of Tahiti. Having written a novel “gives me respect for those who can do it well,” he said.
Writing is a powerful force in Brooks’ life. “I am very unhappy if I am prevented from writing. It is not easy, and fiction is very difficult. It is my daily bout with my imagination.”
Raised in Manhattan, Brooks attended Harvard University, where his desire to read placed him on the academic path. “When I graduated from college, I missed the discipline and the dialogue about literature,” he said. He entered graduate school at Harvard, earning his Ph.D. in 1965.
Throughout the next 37 years, Yale was his home while he acted as a visiting professor at many schools, including Harvard and the University of Oxford. While at Yale, he met and married Rosa Ehrenreich. She took a position on the U.Va. law faculty and Brooks shuttled between Charlottesville and New Haven, Conn., for three years before becoming a visiting professor here in 2003. Today, he holds a dual appointment in the School of Law and the College of Arts & Sciences’ English department, teaching law and humanities courses at the Law School and 19th century comparative literature and literary theory at the College.