Friday, May 16, 2008

A Going Away Present

On Monday the folks at the University of Alabama Law School were kind enough to have a going away lunch for me and George Geis, who's moving to the University of Virginia. It was a real treat to be able to say bye to my colleagues of seven years; Tuscaloosa was a place where I learned a lot--about friendship and legal analysis and where I did some maturing as a scholar, too. I came to Alabama with a bunch of years of teaching experience already, so my experience here was different from the usual entry-level person. In a lot of ways that made it possible for me to focus on learning to appreciate the community and to work on projects that a new faculty member who's still learning how to teach just wouldn't have time for.

Sometimes I worry that my work isn't as interesting as it was before I arrived here. The project that's been most meaningful for me as a scholar was working on Reconstructing the Dreamland. I still think my two favorite pieces of scholarship are an article about a German lawyer who came to Pennsylvania in the late seventeenth century and wrote the first legal treatise in British North America and one on Harriet Beecher Stowe's critique of legal thought in her obscure but revealing novel Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. All three of those were completed before I arrived here. It's sort of sobering to think that my best work (or at least favorite work) may be behind me. Even my current project, University, Court, and Slave, about which I am very excited, traces its origins to my dissertation--although I refined and expanded it greatly in Tuscaloosa. (You'll be hearing a bunch more about University, Court, and Slave in the near future; it's a project about which I am excited, in part because it's letting me get back to my core area of interest: intellectual history of the old South.)

So why do I like my earlier work--or why haven't I produced some more good ideas of late? Hard to say. I found working on Reparations Pro and Con (written entirely in Tuscaloosa) very rewarding but also frustrating. Quite simply, it's hard to get a grip on our nation's long history with race. And I fear that few people want to have a conversation about race. So trying to write a book that does justice to each side and takes account of the important perspectives coming from each vantage is, well, tough.

But maybe there's something about the career paths of scholars in general that accounts for this. Partly I've been taken away from writing articles in recent years by committee work for the University (always illuminating to serve on university committees--you learn a ton, even if it impedes scholarship) and partly because I've been editing book reviews over at Law and History Review, which I love. Maybe it has to do with how we learn to ask questions, too. The issue I find most interesting in legal history--how legal doctrine relates to culture--is an issue that invites even a novice scholar to ask lots of questions. So by the time I started teaching and certainly by the time I'd been teaching a bunch of years, I'd identified a lot of datasets (from cases to literary addresses to black newspapers to literature to landscape art) to examine. So that even when I'm doing "new" work, it's looking at older questions and at data that I've known about for a long time. Boy, it's a real thrill to realize that you're looking at something entirely new to the scholarly community--like the manuscript of the first legal treatise in British North America or the transcript of a trial in the aftermath of the Tulsa riot that took place nearly eighty years ago and that no one had used in decades. I've been getting that thrill again with University, Court, and Slave because I've been reading cases, treatises, and literary addresses that are often ignored.

But the project that's going to get me back to the sense of complete novelty (I hope) is still mostly in the future--it's about the idea of equality in early twentieth-century black thought. And it's tentatively called "Reading the Great Constitutional Dream Book." I've presented an early version a few times. But it's only been an outline so far; the vast majority of the work lies ahead. And therein lies the story about the wonderfully thoughtful going away present my colleagues gave me. My working title comes from Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. When the elderly couple are being evicted, IM asks what are they being evicted from? They have (almost) nothing--all they had was the "great constitutional dream book." And so my project looks to what those ideas were--and then (and this is the really hard part to levitate) how those ideas relate to the civil rights revolution. Ellison first learned about those ideas of the constitutional dream while he was growing up in Oklahoma City and he wrote about that experience a couple of times--including in three essays published in the Carlton Miscellany in 1980 (Carlton College's literary magazine). Somehow (and I'm sure this cost a fortune in effort and money both) they found an autographed copy of that issue (which also contains terrific articles on Ellison by such Ellison luminaries as Robert Steptoe and John Callihan)! Opening that present at the lunch was just another example (as Ellison said) of the unexpected outdoing itself in its power to surprise! While of course I'd read those essays (several were talks given at Brown University) before, it's a real treasure to have them in their original form.

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