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Literature and Law

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Spring tulips and dogwoods on the George Washington Memorial Parkway, McLean, Virginia [Photo by Carol Highsmith. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress]
Spring tulips and dogwoods on the George Washington Memorial Parkway, McLean, Virginia [Photo by Carol Highsmith. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress]
This is a guest post by Jennifer Davis, a supervisory collection specialist in our Collection Services Division at the Law Library of Congress.

Hurrying to work in the morning is a good time to think of to-do lists, song lyrics and snatches of poetry. Like most DC workers, I have been lucky enough to hustle past spring shows of blooming cherry trees, tulips, and snowdrops these past few weeks. As April is also National Poetry Month, it’s a natural time to reconnect with nature, poetry’s celebrations of nature and the pleasures of rhythmic words.  Spring in general, and April in particular, seems to have been very inspirational to poets. April is the month that Eliot dubbed the cruelest; Shakespeare wrote of the lovely “proud-pied April”.  W.S. Merwin described the light of spring in April, and April-born George Herbert celebrated the “Sweet Spring, full of sweet days and roses.” Surrounded by the signs of the season, it’s easy for a person to get swept away in the feelings and memories that the spring, April, and poetry can provoke.

If, however, you agree with Donald Hall, who wrote in the essay “Poetry: the Unsayable Said” that, “anything that can be thoroughly said in prose might as well be said in prose,”  you might prefer to enjoy the spring just by sitting under a tree, or laying on a newly green lawn, with a good work of fiction. Here are a handful of legal fiction titles (and one law-and-poetry volume) excellent for reading while soaking up the sunshine. Now is the perfect time to enjoy the warmer weather, after our extended winter spent indoors. Eventually the fresh air, new flowers and noisy birds may move legal prose fiction fans to read poetry after all.

  1. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll. This title is a childhood classic. Take a look at the trial scene with Alice and the Queen of Hearts in Chapters Eleven and Twelve, wherein cross-examination establishes that tarts are made of pepper. As a bonus, there is a shape poem in Chapter Three about the law (“Fury said to a mouse, that he met in the house, “Come, let us both go to the law….”)
  2. The Indian Lawyer. James Welch. The main character in this novel, Sylvester Yellow Calf, is a Stanford Law graduate, successful lawyer and possible congressional candidate. He must make some hard decisions about his personal life and legal career that unfold in the form of a thriller.
  3. Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Gabriel García Márquez. The famed author just died last week, and many columnists are picking their favorite novel or short story from his oeuvre when writing their tributes to his work; it’s nearly impossible to do. This book is less talked of than One Hundred Years of Solitude or Love in the Time of Cholera, but this book has appeal for legal fiction fans. A town’s residents pass judgment when they do not do anything to stop the foretold death; their compliance with the judgment passed by the murderer serves as the victim’s trial.
  4. Snow Falling on Cedars. David Guterson. The story is told in flashbacks as it moves forward in time, with a murder trial at its heart. As in Chronicle of a Death Foretold, the motivations of the community are a significant factor in the outcomes of the trial and the story.
  5. Season of Migration to the North. Tayeb Salih. The unnamed narrator in this novel spends much of the present-day action of the novel attempting to unravel the mysterious past of Mustafa Sa’eed. The mystery hinges on a court trial of Sa’eed, and that trial has long echoes in the novel’s future action.
  6. Anatomy of a Murder. Robert Traver.  Traver is the pen name of J.D. Voelker, once a judge in the Michigan Supreme Court. He served as the defense attorney on the Michigan murder case that he subsequently fictionalized in this early procedural.
  7. The Law and the Lady. Wilkie Collins. Collins read for the bar before he became a writer, and he employed his knowledge and his interest in family and property law in writing his novels, some of the earliest detective novels published. This story is based in part on a famous murder trial in Scotland; Collins took an opportunity with the novel to criticize the Scottish verdict of “not proven.”
  8. A Frolic of His Own. William Gaddis. This five hundred and eighty-six page satire of the litigious culture of the 1980s is a bit challenging. Gaddis didn’t use quotation marks much like Shaw didn’t believe in apostrophes, and Gaddis seldom identified the speaker, even when multiple characters are speaking. Reading any of his books is akin to working through a graduate level literature seminar. Those caveats aside, the satirical jokes are well worth the effort.

And the poetry volume:

Poetry of the Law: from Chaucer to the Present. Edited by David Kader and Michael Stanford.


  1. Love the variety of the list — and may I add that many of these contain very poetic prose; thanks Donna!

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