Law and Letters in American Culture

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9780674514669: Law and Letters in American Culture
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The role of religion in early American literature has been endlessly studied; the role of the law has been virtually ignored. Robert A. Ferguson's book seeks to correct this imbalance.

With the Revolution, Ferguson demonstrates, the lawyer replaced the clergyman as the dominant intellectual force in the new nation. Lawyers wrote the first important plays, novels, and poems; as gentlemen of letters they controlled many of the journals and literary societies; and their education in the law led to a controlling aesthetic that shaped both the civic and the imaginative literature of the early republic. An awareness of this aesthetic enables us to see works as diverse as Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia and Irving's burlesque History of New York as unified texts, products of the legal mind of the time.

The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the great political orations were written by lawyers, and so too were the literary works of Trumbull, Tyler, Brackenridge, Charles Brockden Brown, William Cullen Bryant, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., and a dozen other important writers. To recover the original meaning and context of these writings is to gain new understanding of a whole era of American culture.

The nexus of law and letters persisted for more than a half-century. Ferguson explores a range of factors that contributed to its gradual dissolution: the yielding of neoclassicism to romanticism; the changing role of the writer; the shift in the lawyer's stance from generalist to specialist and from ideological spokesman to tactician of compromise; the onslaught of Jacksonian democracy and the problems of a country torn by sectional strife. At the same time, he demonstrates continuities with the American Renaissance. And in Abraham Lincoln he sees a memorable late flowering of the earlier tradition.

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About the Author:

Robert A. Ferguson is George Edward Woodberry Professor in Law, Literature, and Criticism at Columbia University.

Review:

Ferguson speaks of American literary aspirations from the Revolution until around 1840 as being dominated by a now-forgotten configuration of law and letters... He has produced a study that establishes valuable new perspectives and rubs the rust off some important but neglected areas of American cultural history. (John Gross New York Times)

An engrossing, beautifully written study of the synthesis of law and literature from late colonial days to the Civil War... [Ferguson] has brilliantly contrasted the lawyeresque, neoclassical culture from which our Union sprang with the romantic-positivist dichotomy into which it evolved. It is a smoothly manipulated essay that takes us easily and logically from Jefferson to Lincoln... This study is at once eloquent and absorbing. (Louis Auchincloss Early American Literature)

An original and inventive piece of work. (Lawrence M. Friedman Journal of American History)

Law and Letters in American Culture compels us to hear a dialogue where we are accustomed to hearing a prevailing voice... It is a groundbreaking work. (Larzer Ziff New England Quarterly)

This book will reward readers with lovely prose and lucid analysis. Ferguson’s concluding remarks on Abraham Lincoln’s place in the American literary tradition are both brilliant and stirring. Law and Letters in American Culture deserves the highest praise. (Douglas Greenberg William & Mary Quarterly)

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9780674514652: Law and Letters in American Culture

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ISBN 10:  0674514653 ISBN 13:  9780674514652
Publisher: Harvard University Press, 1984
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