What is the literary canon of American legal education? What classic books can inform law students and lawyers about the values of our profession?
In the September 2007 issue of the Louisville Bar Association's Bar Briefs, I argued that the literary canon of American legal education should include Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men. Warren's classic, I contended, helps prepare law students for the "the convulsion of the world," fully aware of the interconnected world and of the lawful responsibility of time.
This past weekend, Alabama law professor Al Brophy, in a guest stint at the Legal History Blog, and I both addressed the literary revival of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. I argued that Gatsby should inform contemporary immigration law and policy. Al Brophy treated the revival of Gatsby as a good occasion to ask an even broader question: "what other literature is out there waiting to be discovered, particularly what other literature is out there waiting to tell us something about jurisprudence[?]"
Al answered his own question by suggesting three nineteenth-century American works: Catharine Sedgwick's Clarence, James Fenimore Cooper's trilogy on the anti-rent movement, and Nathaniel Beverly Tucker's George Balcombe. For my part, I have nominated yet another candidate for inclusion in legal education's literary canon: Frank Norris, The Octopus (1901).
Norris wrote his "Story of California" as part one of an unfinished "Epic of Wheat." The Octopus was based on the Mussel Slough Tragedy of 1880, a bloody conflict between ranchers and the Southern Pacific Railroad. Farmers in the San Joaquin Valley had leased land from the railroad at $2.50 to $5 per acre, in the hope of eventually purchasing the land outright. When the railroad offered the land for sale at prices adjusted for improvements (made, for the most part, by the farmers themselves), fighting broke out.
I've used The Octopus in agricultural law and in regulated industries. The agricultural application should be self-explanatory. As for regulated industries, The Octopus provides (remarkably enough) what may be American literature's most complete description of classic cost-of-service ratemaking. I always told my students that a page of Norris was worth a volume of Chen: The Death of the Regulatory Compact: Adjusting Prices and Expectations in the Law of Regulated Industries, 67 Ohio State L.J. 1265 (2006).
I am curious to discover what books all of us in the UofL Law School community would enshrine in the literary canon of legal education. I hope to return to this subject soon here at The Cardinal Lawyer, ideally with a reading list suitable for use in a classroom or by a book club.