Academic journal article Independent Review

Literature and Liberty: Essays in Libertarian Literary Criticism

Academic journal article Independent Review

Literature and Liberty: Essays in Libertarian Literary Criticism

Article excerpt

Literature and Liberty: Essays in Libertarian Literary Criticism

By Allen P. Mendenhall

Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2014.

Pp. x, 163. $79.99 hardcover.

In the final paragraph of his introduction to Literature and Liberty, Allen Mendenhall clearly outlines the project of his book: "This book shows libertarians that the humanities in general and literature in particular can serve as useful, illuminating sources for studying economics and human action" (p. 22). I agree with Mendenhall that such a project is a useful and necessary one with enormous potential gains from trade for both economics and literary studies. And, on the whole, I like Literature and Liberty. But although the book does some very interesting things, it does not seem to me to accomplish what its author says he set out to do.

What Mendenhall has given us is an interesting collection of essays on law and literature, occasionally spiced with a libertarian take on perennial problems such as the status of the individual and the representation of capitalism in literary texts. But it does not give us a libertarian literary theory, nor does it give us examples of that kind of theory. For example, the essay "Liberty and Shakespeare" is not a discussion of liberty in Shakespeare. It is, instead, an extended and interesting history of the discipline of law and literature as well as the discipline's continuing fascination with Shakespeare's plays. He argues that the history of law and literature--in particular its treatment of Shakespeare--is evidence that we need "sound scholarship (as opposed to enthusiastic appropriation)" (p. 41), a point with which any Shakespeare scholar will agree, while also pointing Mendenhall to the recent book Shakespeare and the Law: A Conversation among Disciplines and Professions, edited by Bradin Cormack, Martha C. Nussbaum, and Richard Strier (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013). Mendenhall's review of the law and literature scholarship is well done and useful, and I am particularly appreciative of the essay's closing argument about the importance of aggressively interdisciplinary, collaborative, coauthored works as a way of revivifying the academy. "We must step outside of our comfort zones. Disciplinary impediments serve to restrain intellectual production by blocking channels of communication and by shutting down access to much needed resources--most notably experts in other fields" (p. 47). It is a good piece, but it is about law and literature, not about liberty.

Similarly, Mendenhall's essay on E. M. Forster's A Passage to India promises to examine both law and liberty in the novel, but it becomes so caught up in the discussion of law than the promised discussion of liberty falls by the wayside. Again, the essay is an interesting one, highlighting Forster's contrasting of British and Indian legal norms. As Mendenhall notes, Forster "contrasts the coercion and compulsion of rule of law to the emergent orders attendant on Brahman Hinduism" (p. 52). Some close attention to definitions would have aided the essay at this point. "Brahman Hinduism," which Mendenhall allows to be an "odd construction," is left undefined, which makes the details of the contrast with British law somewhat obscure. And Mendenhall seems to occlude distinctions between concepts such as "rule of law" and "common law" and "British law as enacted in India" when clarity would have aided his case.

"A Tale of the Rise of Law," which considers Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, is another law and literature essay. This essay, I think, might have benefitted from a more substantial grounding in medieval intellectual history. Mendenhall's assertion that "[o]ne could make the case that mythical thinking about law was more consequential in the twelfth century than in the eighteenth century simply because of the various claims to sovereign authority in the twelfth century" (p. …

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