Crime, Law, and Literature at the Law School

Crime in Law and Literature Conference

When Grace Goodblatt, ’16, started law school, she didn’t expect the opportunity to act in a stage production, let alone alongside a federal judge. And yet, she found herself in the Law School’s courtroom, playing a handmaiden in a production of Aeschylus’ Oresteia co-starring Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Richard Posner.  

Faculty and students performed extracts from the play as part of the Crime in Law and Literature Conference, held Friday and Saturday and organized by Professors Martha Nussbaum, Richard McAdams, and Alison LaCroix.

Goodblatt and her fellow handmaidens, Siggi Hindrichs, ’16, and Amy Upshaw, ’16, laid down a red carpet for Posner, playing Agamemnon, to walk across. At the other end stood Nussbaum, as Clytemnestra, waiting with a hidden dagger. Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon offstage.

“Ah, I am struck a deadly blow!” Posner cried. Nussbaum emerged, wearing a look of satisfaction and a lot of fake blood.

“These are such familiar people in their fields, and to get to work with them in this setting was thrilling,” Goodblatt said. Besides Posner and Nussbaum, the play included eight other faculty members, as well as New York Times bestselling author (and lawyer) Scott Turow, who spoke after the performance. Sixteen law students played the role of jurors in what the Greeks believed to be the first homicide trial ever.

Turow’s speech, about his dual passions of law and literature, was a highlight of two days of presentations on topics wide-ranging and often unexpected. The conference was the Law School’s fourth on law and literature since 2009.

Nussbaum, who has organized all the conferences and co-edited the resulting volumes of papers, said the conference, especially the performances, are community builders. Nussbaum and Lecturer in Law Jajah Wu, ‘10, each contributed a vocal performance to the Friday showcase, and Gary DeTurck, ’14, played cello and piano.

“It’s kind of a carnival, really,” Nussbaum said. “It’s academically quite serious, but it also does have this joyous and emotional side, largely through the theater and the music, which I think is great for our community. It brings people out of themselves, and it makes our lives with each other richer.”

Turow, who had a cameo as the watchman in the beginning of the play, said the ancient drama, with its murder and bloodlust, has modern applications.

“The Oresteia shows us how popular a theme law has been in literature,” Turow said. “Transgression is of enormous interest, it’s of inherent interest. We are all battling the impulse to do wrong.”

Turow described his determined quest, born in childhood, to write a novel. His early efforts, he recognizes now, were all about crime, but he didn’t realize that then. Inspired by friends in law school and a strong interest in law, he decided to attend Harvard Law School, where his experiences were immortalized as a memoir, One L. After graduation, he became an Assistant U.S. State’s Attorney, and in his second year in that job, he started the book that would become the wildly popular Presumed Innocent, later turned into a movie starring Harrison Ford.

Turow offered a case for the dual study of law and literature: “I would not argue against the place of law and literature in today’s law schools. I think its main advantage is in what it does for legal education, and how it looses the bindings.”

After his talk, Turow answered questions from McAdams, LaCroix, and Seventh Circuit Chief Judge Diane Wood, who is also a Senior Lecturer in Law, as well as audience members.

The rest of the conference featured academic presentations on faculty research, both from the Chicago community and beyond. In a session on Race and Crime, Nussbaum presented her work on the ineffectiveness of anger against injustice, this time in the context of Alan Paton’s apartheid-era novel Cry, the Beloved Country. Fellow panelist Justin Driver, Professor of Law at  the University of Texas (but joining our faculty this summer), talked about Justice Clarence Thomas’ documented relationship with Bigger Thomas, the protagonist of Richard Wright’s Native Son. University of Chicago English Professor Kenneth Warren joined them, presenting on state-sponsored crime against non-citizens, as depicted in the novel The Stone Face and the French film Caché.

Chicago Law Professors Saul Levmore and Jonathan Masur presented during a panel on Responsibility and Violence. Levmore examined threats in the kidnapping novel The Collector, and Masur the concepts of premeditation and responsibility in the French novel The Stranger. They were joined by Professor Mark Payne of the University of Chicago Department of Classics, who wrote about literary depictions of eye-for-an-eye-style punishments doled out to those who damaged or destroyed trees. English Professor Blakey Vermeule of Stanford University’s work looked at ethical discussions in gangster fiction.

In a session on Suspicion and Investigation, Professor Bernard Harcourt revisited George Orwell’s 1984 in light of modern revelations about National Security Agency surveillance. Yale University English Professor Caleb Smith joined him, presenting on the importance of setting in literature as a tool to examine issues of justice. Also on the panel was Professor Steven Wilf of the University of Connecticut School of Law, who looked at novel characters who are both legal historians and detectives. 

McAdams, who presented on Shakespeare’s Othello at the 2009 law and literature conference, did so again this year, this time looking at whether Othello’s killing of Desdemona is murder under various interpretations of the law. He co-wrote the paper with Chicago English Professor Emeritus Richard Strier, who was abroad and unable to attend the panel. He was joined, however, by Professor Barry Wimpfheimer of Northwestern University’s Department of Religious Studies, who presented a discussion of perjury in the context of ancient Jewish legal texts. English Professor Marina Leslie of Northeastern University in Boston examined the literary legacy of Anne Green, the English woman who famously survived a hanging in 1650. They were to be joined on the panel, titled Criminal Histories, by LaCroix, who wrote about the crime of treason in Hilary Mantel’s novels about the Tudor state. LaCroix was unable to attend the session, but her work will be included in the upcoming volume.

Four student papers also were presented, two by law students and two by philosophy students.

Leslie, the Northeastern professor, said she enjoyed her first law and literature conference at the Law School.

“The panel I was on had people from three different disciplines, and it was surprisingly coherent. The talks were surprisingly resonant with one another,” Leslie said. “Interdisciplinarity, as a whole, is much more aspired than achieved. At this conference, I think it’s really achieved.”