Law and Conversation

January 20, 2014

Martin Luther King Day, Father Pfleger, and stories

Getting to hear the remarkable Fr. Michael L. Pfleger speak on violence last week at a meeting of an organization of lawyers and judges to which I belong was especially timely given that today is Martin Luther King Day in the U.S. I can’t adequately summarize everything he said–you need to listen to him yourself–but, among other things, he emphasized the importance of good schools and education for every young person and said that we as a nation must “come to terms with our love affair with guns.” I couldn’t agree more.

Fr. Pfleger is an eloquent, direct, and dynamic speaker whose message deserves wide dissemination. You can read more about him and watch a number of his speeches on the website of Chicago’s St. Sabina Parish, where he is pastor. Be sure to check out St. Sabina’s main page, too, which has other links of interest.

Several rather disparate books I’ve read in the past few years came to my mind on this holiday honoring Dr. King:

1) Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, a remarkable memoir that takes the 21st-century reader inside the life of a 19th-century slave. The link takes you to a site with the free text.

2) Martha Washington: First Lady of Liberty, by Helen Bryan. This well-written and carefully researched biography is not only a fascinating story of its subject but also a detailed study of slavery that demonstrates what a deeply sick system it was and what profound and long-lasting effects it had for our country. A bonus for me was noticing that the author, whose job was quite difficult because her subject deliberately left so little documentation for posterity (Martha burned every scrap of correspondence between herself and George that she could find), is a lawyer.

3) Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann. The book as a whole did not quite work for me; it consists of several stories of people in New York City that the author links with 9-11-01, and I did not find that the link was strong enough to call the separate stories a novel. But McCann writes really well. His depiction of the violence and despair in New York’s inner city is realistic and heart-rending.

The speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. are, of course, tremendous. CNN has a story of some that are often overlooked or overshadowed by the more famous “I Have A Dream.”

How inspiring and hopeful that one man could effect such change in our country through determination and nonviolence.

August 17, 2013

Charles Dickens, Claire Tomalin, and backing it up

I’ve just finished Claire Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens, which came out a couple of years ago and had been sitting on my nightstand in a TBR stack. I was really looking forward to seeing what Tomalin had to say about Dickens, especially since I’d recently finished “Little Dorrit” and had also read Tomalin’s masterpiece of biographical sleuthing and deduction, “The Invisible Woman,” her biography of Nelly Ternan, Dickens’s much younger mistress.

Tomalin delivered some fascinating insights into the great author in highly readable form. Still, there were a few references that bothered me.

First, in chapter 16, she writes that after the death of their nine-month-old daughter Dora in 1851 “Another Highgate funeral had to be planned and carried out, and [Dickens’s wife] Catherine brought to London and comforted.”

For me, Tomalin’s phrasing leaves much to be desired. As a friend observed, it conveys that Catherine was – horrors – NEEDY, as great a sin 160 years ago as it is today, at least when we’re talking about those in the circle of a Very Important Person with an ego to match his (or her) ability. No matter that Catherine’s CHILD HAD JUST DIED.

Based on sympathetic references to Catherine elsewhere in her book, I don’t really think Tomalin meant to suggest anything unkind about her. However, I would have liked some additional information and commentary here about Dickens’s and Catherine’s relationship and the impact of their child’s death on both of them individually and on their relationship, which had deteriorated badly by that time. Dora was Dickens’s child, too; did he not also grieve, even though, as Tomalin notes elsewhere in her book, he said on more than one occasion that he regretted having more than three children? Even a statement that there is no information, or that Dickens made no reference to Dora’s death in his surviving contemporaneous correspondence with his close friends, if that was the case, would be insightful.

Second, in chapter 25, Tomalin refers to Dickens’s daughter Katey’s marriage to Charles Collins, 12 years her senior and an invalid, as “not much of a marriage.” Again, though I realize a biographer has to make some hard choices about how much information to include about members of her subject’s circle, I would have liked a few more details to support her conclusory description. Plenty of happy couples, after all, have similar differences in age, and it’s hard to imagine greater devotion and commitment than that of one whose spouse is so disabled as no longer to be capable of being a partner. Tomalin asserts earlier that Katey decided to marry Collins (the brother of the writer Wilkie Collins, Dickens’s friend) “without love” and “to get away from home” (chapter 21). A supporting quotation or two would have benefited these conclusions; the endnotes do not make the bases for Tomalin’s assertions clear.

I don’t remember reading biographies this critically before I became a lawyer. Though lawyers get a bad rap for writing obscurely, the characteristics of good legal writing are the same as good general writing and include clarity and, for nonfiction, documentation. If you write a brief – a document in which you make your best argument for your client – you need to support every assertion with authority. So when I read a work of nonfiction, for every single assertion I want to know on what primary sources the author relied and what in them warrants the author’s conclusions.

As has already been reported, Tomalin was taken in by an academic fraud: she recounts as fact a meeting that supposedly took place between Dickens and Dostoevsky in London in 1862. The purported meeting never happened, though the academic hoax was accepted for years. (I believe the error has been corrected in later editions of Tomalin’s biography). The lessons? First, as journalism students have long been taught, even under deadline pressure and even with a seemingly unimpeachable source, “check it out.” Second, even tremendous writers and scholars like Tomalin can make mistakes, which should actually be heartening for all of us.

April 29, 2011

The royal wedding, law, and story

UK freelance writer Alex Aldridge has provided a 3-part legal perspective on today’s royal wedding for Above The Law, including quotes from some who believe that Will and Kate have a signed prenuptial agreement and at least one who thinks they don’t. And Penelope Trunk lends some affirmation for my fascination with the royal wedding by acknowledging her own in a thoughtful post in which she muses on how Will and Kate will build a happy life together by finding meaningful work.

Media reports notwithstanding, we don’t and can’t really know much of the real story of this royal couple’s romance–though it’s very pleasant to see that they seem happy and very much in love, and at least as likely to remain so as any newlyweds. For some really detailed accounts of other aristocratic relationships, history provides a more fertile field.

It’s hard to beat Stella Tillyard‘s “Aristocrats,” the story of Caroline, Emily, Louisa, and Sarah Lennox, 1740-1832, for a marvelous story of 18th century marriage among the English gentry. For other stories of upper-class alliances that clearly set forth the role of completely non-romantic factors in marriage negotiations–i.e. money and social rank–read not only the nonfiction “Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt:  The Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age,” by Amanda Mackenzie Stewart, but also any of Jane Austen‘s novels and Edith Wharton‘s sadly unfinished “The Buccaneers,” among other titles.  What I’m currently reading, Anthony Trollope’s “The Way We Live Now,” is a completely cynical look at marriage among the 19th century’s English upper classes that’s guaranteed to cast a dark veil over any starry eyes.

Stella Tillyard said “I’ve always thought that one of the reasons why people read biography is to find out ordinary things. We tend to read the lives of extraordinary people in order to find out details of ordinary life.” What do you think?

April 15, 2011

More on Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor–and DRA 2005 and Medicaid, too

I recently posted about the sad last days of the Duchess of Windsor, Wallis Warfield Simpson, still a controversial figure 75 years after King Edward VIII of England abdicated his throne to marry her.  Today’s edition of Arts and Letters Daily provides a link to a review of a new biography by Hugo Vickers, “Where’s Wallis?  Behind Closed Doors:  The Tragic, Untold Story of the Duchess of Windsor.”  Having read Caroline Blackwood‘s “The Last of the Duchess” with horrified fascination, I’m putting Vickers’s book on my list.

Even the duchess’s vast resources couldn’t save her from dementia, nor is it even clear to what extent they might have alleviated the unhappiness of her last years.  And the duchess apparently didn’t put her affairs in particularly good order before the disease overtook her. Dementia and the cost of health care are huge topics in the news these days, and, accordingly, how best to advise clients on their estate plans is of great concern to lawyers.  I have an article in the current issue (April 2011) of the Illinois Bar Journal on the effect of the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 on Illinois’s new Medicaid regulations.  I was pleased to get to reference “A Penny Saved Can Be a Penalty Earned:  Nursing Homes, Medicaid Planning, the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, and the Problem of Transferring Assets,” a scholarly but very readable article by Catherine M. Reif, a recent graduate of Northern Illinois University’s College of Law, which appeared in vol. 34, No. 2 of New York University’s Review of Law and Social Change.  Though federal (or state) regulations do not exactly make for fun reading, Cathy’s article drew me in right away through her use of story.  Using as examples four hypothetical elderly women, all 72, all of whom earned the same amount of money and own the same sort of modest home, but each of whom made different lifestyle choices, Cathy explains the law’s disparate effect and makes even this complex subject understandable.

Readers, can you think of any examples of story helping you to understand a complex topic?

March 4, 2011

RIP Hazel Rowley: Biographer and storyteller

Sad news of Australian biographer Hazel Rowley’s untimely death this week at the age of 59.  Rowley wrote “Tete-a-Tete: The Tumultous Lives and Loves of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre,” “Franklin and Eleanor:  An Extraordinary Marriage,” and biographies of Australian novelist Christina Stead and American writer Richard Wright.  She knew how to tell a good story, meticulously documented her research, and was a guest on a number of talk show programs, including the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s The Book Show.

In one interview on The Book Show, Rowley memorably said she preferred her biographical subjects dead (note that dead people can’t bring actions for libel). Those interested in biography and copyright law should read her article in the winter 2009 issue of The American Scholar on French publishing law and how it affected the publication of her biography of Sartre and Beauvoir in France.

In the meantime, check out communications researcher R.C. Richards‘s Droit Blog, on which he provides thoughts on law, music, politics, business, and other matters. In a lengthy post on August 5, 2010, “Selective Retraction of Inaccurate Statements About Public Figures: A Case Study,” Richards examines a political post on Twitter containing multiple inaccurate statements as a case study in political communication.  Richards’s measured and scholarly tone is a refreshing contrast to the brainless shouting and personal attacks that abound nowadays as purported political discussions and debates.

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