Law in Art: Melville's Major Fiction and Nineteenth-Century American Law

Law in Art: Melville's Major Fiction and Nineteenth-Century American Law

Law in Art: Melville's Major Fiction and Nineteenth-Century American Law

Law in Art: Melville's Major Fiction and Nineteenth-Century American Law

Synopsis

In "Law in Art" Susan Weiner explores Melville's major fictions as imaginative responses to crucial conflicts within nineteenth-century American law. Of paramount importance were the transition to a marketplace economy, the problem of slavery, and the conflict between morality and the law. Drawing upon the insights of the Critical Legal Studies movement as well as those of the New Historians, Weiner examines the suppositions of legal reasoning and discusses the extent to which literary discourse offers a challenge to legal discourse. In so doing she argues that literature can play a dynamic role in bringing law closer to justice.

Excerpt

The fiction of Herman Melville offers many possibilities to the reader. The purpose of this book is to consider Melville's central works in regard to their treatment of and concern with legal issues of paramount importance during his time. To do this has meant to refrain from doing many other things. It has meant reading Melville in such a way as to exclude a direct discussion of religion, philosophy, or psychology, but not to be unmindful of them. It has meant a narrow focus upon one specific area, law, to try to illuminate aspects of the literary works that, until recently, have not been treated in detail or in a developmental way. But while narrowness of focus may, of necessity, reduce the scope of vision, it can also reveal a depth that was not immediately apparent. It is my hope that from this perspective a new dimension of his work may emerge.

Chapter 1 introduces possible origins of the law/literature interconnection in Melville's imagination. While critics have acknowledged this relationship in his later explicit "legal fictions," the link between the two realms actually begins earlier, with the dedication of his first book to Judge Shaw. Familial and financial support ultimately become factors the young author must supplant in order to create his literary identity. In addition, Melville's contrast of native and civilized societies reflects the change in American law from a natural law tradition to an instrumental concept. The world of Typee becomes a touchstone by which to measure the losses incurred by the requirements of an expanding market-place economy.

Chapter 2 focuses upon the structure of nineteenth-century industrial society that resulted from changes within the legal realm. The shipboard hierarchy becomes a metaphor for the rigidity and injustices exacerbated by the legal system. The problem of unjust . . .

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