Law and Conversation

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.

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July 22, 2013

Charles Dickens, George Zimmerman, and Trayvon Martin

Instead of watching the George Zimmerman trial, I was reading “Little Dorrit.” The long 19th century novel by Charles Dickens had been on my list for a LONG time, and it had been a few years since I’d read a Dickens novel. I enjoyed it immensely.

As I was reading it, I was thinking about how different the great novels of the 19th century are from the literary novels that are published today. Among many other differences, Dickens’s characters are generally more two- than three-dimensional. Many, particularly the supporting characters, are types, and even the main characters behave completely predictably and provide no surprises. Little Dorrit, for example, is Goodness personified—a martyr who never, ever, appears to feel any anger or resentment toward the rest of her family for allowing her to support them, sponging off her labor and good works. Rigaud/Blandois, the villain, is completely evil—a sociopath with no redeeming qualities. The story’s hero, Arthur Clennam, along with his friends, Mr. Meagles and Daniel Doyce, is completely morally upright; like Little Dorrit, Clennam is very, very good, never appears to feel or express any resentment toward those who have treated him badly, and is also a bit of a martyr who has to be coaxed and convinced that he’s not washed up in his thirties and too old to have a life. Compare it to Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections,” for example: I’ve heard Franzen criticized for writing a 19th century novel in the 21st century, but for me his narrative was timely and fresh, with imperfect, human, three-dimensional characters.

For Dickens, it’s all or nothing; a character is either good or bad. Amy Dorrit, Arthur Clennam, and Monsieur Rigaud don’t exist in real life. They have no complexity, no shades of gray—they’re more like windup dolls than humans. But notwithstanding the book’s largely flat, predictable, unrealistic characters, “Little Dorrit” is a great story, driven by a complex plot if not by complex characters, and we still read and enjoy it 160 years after he published it.

Like Dickens’s works, most of the stories I’ve read about the Zimmerman trial have flat, predictable characters. For many, the correct story of what happened is that Zimmerman was an evil, aggressive racist, while Martin was a peaceful saint. For others, the story is that Zimmerman was heroically protecting his neighborhood, while Martin unreasonably attacked him and was viciously beating him up. The former camp’s rhetoric comes pretty close to suggesting that Zimmerman was acquitted because of racism and he should be retried until a court reaches the result they think is correct; the latter camp’s, that it wasn’t at all a bad thing that Zimmerman was prepared to, and did, shoot point-blank to kill. So from the first camp, never mind double jeopardy, and from the second camp, never mind that we have a police force to address suspected criminal activity. If you think about it, both camps seem to agree on one thing: if law enforcement or the courts do not administer what people who weren’t there and/or don’t have all the facts think is the correct result, taking justice into one’s own hands might be a good thing to do. That’s horrifying.

Amid all the shouting and handwringing, two blog posts about the Zimmerman trial stand out for me: Miami, FL lawyer Brian Tannebaum on The Embarrassment of the George Zimmerman Verdict and NYU law professor Stephen Gillers on An imaginary dialogue trying to explain Florida v. Zimmerman to someone who has not had the benefit of a legal education at The Legal Ethics Forum. Both focus on the human reality and the law of the events and the trial.

As for me, I’m not seeing a Dickensian story with flat, good or evil characters here. Though I’m mindful of Tannebaum’s admonition “You weren’t there, and you don’t know what happened,” I’m seeing two basically decent people, Zimmerman and Martin, who both made some unwise decisions one evening that ended up in Martin’s losing his life and Zimmerman’s having to spend a chunk of his life, and probably a lot of money, defending a criminal prosecution and becoming an object of hatred for a lot of people. I’m also seeing an enormous amount of handwringing about racism—which we can all agree is a bad thing—and very little interest in rethinking our country’s attitude toward guns and the law. To the contrary, every time there is a gun tragedy, whether it’s a bunch of people getting shot at a movie theatre, little kids getting shot to death at an elementary school, or a young person who had his whole life in front of him getting killed a short distance from his family home, the ultimate result has been even more rhetoric, policy, and laws encouraging people to get and carry guns.

So how did that pro-gun attitude and those pro-gun laws work out for everyone in the Zimmerman case? Not too well for Martin, who’s dead. Not too well for Zimmerman, who had to spend lots of time and resources that he could have been dedicating to his family and his personal pursuits defending himself in a criminal prosecution instead, not to mention becoming an object of opprobrium for a significant number of people, many of whom he will probably encounter in the future. (OK, maybe Zimmerman will get a lucrative book deal and sell movie rights to his story and go on the speaking circuit, but if he does (and maybe he won’t–I certainly don’t know what he will or won’t do), he will have paid quite a price for those things.) Not too well for the country, either: following the verdict, there’s an increased perception on the part of many that Zimmerman was acquitted because his victim was African-American (if you have questions about the reasons for the verdict, please read Tannebaum’s excellent post) and that our system of justice doesn’t work as it ought.

I’m familiar with the arguments for opposing limitations on firearm ownership that many honorable and intelligent people hold dear. “When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns” was a facile and popular saying when I was growing up, and one which I myself espoused as a young person; while that’s still around, more lately I’ve seen “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” They sound good and easily roll off the tongue, but both ignore human complexity as much as Dickens’s stories do.

I can recognize that there may be a few occasions where a Bad Guy/Outlaw, or someone who’s gone off the deep end, is prevented from shooting people because there’s a levelheaded Good Guy, who’s also a crack shot, in the vicinity with a gun and is in just the right position to get a good shot off to take the Bad Guy down without killing one or more innocent bystanders in between. Note, however, that those are a lot of factors that need to converge; if any one of them is not present—Good Guy isn’t levelheaded, isn’t a great shot, isn’t in precisely the right position, Bad Guy or Innocent Bystanders move out of or into Good Guy’s bullet path—the story doesn’t have a happy ending. Story also doesn’t have a happy ending if person standing next to Good Guy as he pulls out his gun doesn’t realize he’s the Good Guy and thinks maybe he’s a Bad Guy and takes him down, maybe with his own gun. (How are we to recognize the Good Guy, I wonder? How do we know the guy standing next to us who’s pulling out a firearm in the shopping mall, or in the movie theatre, or on the subway, is going to save us and isn’t another Bad Guy?)

Far more likely to occur are any number of less than ideal scenarios. Maybe our hero, the Good Guy, is actually an officious busybody and wannabe hero who misreads a situation so badly that he (or she) ends up killing someone who wasn’t a Bad Guy at all. Maybe Good Guy has the best of intentions but isn’t a crack marksman and takes out Innocent Bystander instead of Bad Guy. Maybe our Good Guy who’s lawfully carrying a gun around has dementia; if you think that concealed carry laws, or open carry laws, are a great idea, is that something that makes you feel safer? (Can you write a statute that prevents someone with undiagnosed dementia or paranoia, or an uncontrolled temper, or bad judgment, from possessing firearms? I don’t think so. Writing statutes that do just what you want them to do, and nothing else, is HARD.) Or maybe our Bad Guy isn’t a fundamentally bad guy, but is legitimately feeling unfairly treated by the world, maybe is clinically depressed and not thinking rationally, maybe is chronically angry at not being in the position he thinks he should be in due to various unfairnesses in his life, experiences a Last Straw that might be getting laid off, or evicted, or divorced, or sued, or cut off in traffic, and in a moment of appallingly poor judgment takes out the gun that he’s lawfully carrying and uses it—maybe on others, maybe on himself, maybe first the former and then the latter. Or maybe we have two generally good guys, or two general jerks, or one of each, who are lawfully carrying guns, take offense at each other’s actions, and, in the heat of their disagreement, take out their guns and use them.

All of those scenarios are realistic, and all end up as tragedies. All, I suggest, are far more likely to happen in our gun-encouraging culture than the flat, two-dimensional Good Guy With A Gun saving the rest of us from the flat, two-dimensional Bad Guy With A Gun. And with no change in our country’s pro-gun attitude, and no change in the laws, I suggest that they ARE increasingly likely to happen.

Sadly, since the shootings at schools and movie theaters, the reaction that has carried the political day has been “We Must Have More Guns,” and the only changes in the laws have been changes that make it even more likely that there will be more George Zimmermans and more Trayvon Martins. President Obama recently said publicly that he could have been Trayvon Martin, but you know what? So could any of us, and so could any of us be George Zimmerman if we opt to carry guns.

For now, I’m returning to my Dickens novels, and to 19th century England. But I have no doubt that, as I did when reading Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” set in 18th-century Germany, I’ll continue to find resonance in these novels of past times and faraway places for events occurring in the 21st century USA.

July 8, 2013

Progress report: Dickens down and articles published

Recently, after a couple of years of spending way too much time thinking and talking about it, I finally buckled down and read another Dickens novel. The reason it took me so long to get around to it is that most novels by Dickens are SOOOOO long – editing was a lot different in the 19th century, if there even was any – and I knew it would take me a few weeks before I’d be able to finish it and add it to my list of books read, so I would not get the quick (though superficial) gratification that would come with finishing several shorter books and watching my numbers grow. My lovely Folio Society edition of “Little Dorrit” weighed in at 2 or 3 pounds, I’m guessing, and over 800 pages. But it was such a pleasure to read, both for the story and for the attractive edition, that I toted it along on long and short trips while I was in the middle of it. Definitely more satisfying than reading 800 pages of several not-so-great novels!

Reading a Dickens novel was on my list of New Year’s resolutions, so I feel especially pleased about finishing it. And because I enjoyed it so much, I’ve decided to reread “The Pickwick Papers,” which is a total delight, and also, finally, make headway in Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dickens, which I’ve had on my nightstand for a couple of years. Learning more about the real-life details of Dickens’ life that inspired his plots, themes, and characters brings even more meaning into the novels for me. And, of course, it’s neat to learn a bit about the law offices where he worked briefly. Proving Nora Ephron’s observation that everything is copy, Dickens put his experiences and observations there to excellent use in his fiction.

I have more thoughts on Dickens and “Little Dorrit” that I’ll post another day. In the meantime, you can read 2 articles that I wrote last month for the ABA/BNA Lawyers’ Manual On Professional Conduct on the ABA website, one on a blogging lawyer and the other on the death and dissolution of law firms.

January 2, 2012

Looking back on 2011 and forward into 2012

2011 was a great year for reading for me. I focused even more than I have in past years on reading critically and with purpose. That meant I read more books, and better books, than when I’ve read more haphazardly.

I like to keep a running list of the books I read, the better to remember them (which writing about them on this blog also helps me to do). My personal Best Book Read In 2011 was the graphic novel “Watchmen,” by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Other books I enjoyed greatly included several by Alexander McCall Smith; Scottish poet Jackie Kay’s memoir, “Red Dust Road;” Suzanne Collins’s YA blockbuster, “The Hunger Games;” and Anthony Trollope’s masterwork, “The Way We Live Now,” which had been on my TBR list for at least a couple of years.

One book I especially enjoyed wasn’t even my idea to read. Knowing of my passion for Laura Ingalls Wilder, an intuitive friend surprised me with a gift at the end of 2011, Kristin Kimball’s “The Dirty Life.” Ever wonder what it was REALLY like for Laura to live with Almanzo and build a life on the farm together? After reading Kimball’s memoir of meeting, moving in with, and marrying her farmer husband, I think I have a pretty good idea (and, like Kimball’s husband, I bet Almanzo and, for that matter, Laura, had smelly armpits, too).

One of my resolutions last year was to read a nice, juicy biography. I had two in mind: Maynard Solomon’s “Beethoven” and Benita Eisler’s “O’Keefe and Stieglitz.” Alas, they’re still sitting on my nightstand, unread. But I kept that resolution by reading another thick biography I’d had for several years: Mary S. Lovell’s “The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family.” Lovell’s book was a good read about an interesting family, but I found myself agreeing with a discerning friend who described it as having “lost its moral compass.” To her, and to me, the author seemed rather too enthralled by the faded glamour of the unrepentant Diana Mitford, in particular, who married Oswald Mosley, an M.P. who became the leader of the British Fascists and, with Diana, was imprisoned for much of World War II because of their open sympathy for Hitler. Scandalous Women has more about the Mitford sisters.

Another aspiration of mine in 2011 was to read a Dickens novel. I’m sorry to say I didn’t keep that one. But in 2012 I hope to make amends by reading both Claire Tomalin’s new biography of Dickens and a Dickens novel I haven’t read before, since both were under our Christmas tree. I’m excited!

I did something new in 2011 that I plan to continue in 2012: I became a guest blogger on The Europa Challenge Blog. It was pure serendipity that I peeked at my Twitter stream one evening and saw Marie’s tweet inviting fans of Europa Editions publications to participate on this fan blog. Having already read several Europa books, I had no hesitation about accepting. Initially, I signed up for the fairly conservative four-book Europa Ami challenge level. But I like a bit of competition, so I pushed myself and surpassed the 7-book Europa Haver level, reading 8 new Europa books in all—which doesn’t count the several I’d read before accepting the challenge. For 2012, Marie has renamed the levels with a wonderful continental café theme. I’m starting out cautiously, signing up for the 4-book Espresso level, but I’m quite confident I’ll be able to reach at least the 6-book Cappuccino mark. As a lawyer, I love finding and thinking about the legal issues in the books I read. In Europa’s books, I’d particularly recommend Alberto Angela’s “A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome” for its brief discussion of Roman legal proceedings, Peter Kocan’s “The Treatment and The Cure” and “Fresh Fields” for his depiction of Australia’s treatment of the mentally ill who have committed crimes, and Jane Gardam’s wonderful “Old Filth” and “The Man in the Wooden Hat” for her portrait of a marriage from both spouses’ respective points of view.

What are your New Year’s resolutions?

October 21, 2011

Terror in literature and real life

I’m shedding no tears at the death of Muammar Gaddafi, just as I shed none on learning of the deaths of Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, or any other brutal dictators.

But I’m not dancing in the streets over it, either.

A friend and fellow Illinois lawyer, Lee Goodman, posted thoughtfully today on Gaddafi’s demise, the ensuing celebrations, and the coincidence of today being Simchat Torah, the significance of which another friend explained to me a couple of nights ago. (Lee is president of MentorCLE, which has a presentation of mine, “Persuasive Writing for Lawyers,” that you can watch and, if you’re a lawyer, get 1 hour of MCLE professionalism credit for; if you pay for the credit, I receive a small royalty.)

A famous line from Shakespeare’s play, “Henry VI,” is “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Back when I thought lawyer jokes were funny (that was a LONG time ago), I thought that was hilarious. Since then, I’ve not only become a lawyer but learned the context of that line: it’s what an aspiring tyrant proposes to do to make it easier for him to assume absolute power and despotism, and it isn’t a bit funny. As I was pondering Lee’s post and the events of yesterday, I started thinking about what it must be like to be a resident in a country where such unrest is occurring and how lucky I feel not to be there and, instead, in a country where the rule of law remains strong.

Libya and Iraq seem very far away, not only geographically but culturally, and Romania isn’t that much closer. But periods of terror have certainly happened in western cultures as well, and even in the fairly recent past: Romania straddles west and east, Hitler was dictator of Germany within living memory, and there are those in Spain who still mourn Generalissimo Francisco Franco, who, though ruthless, did bring Spain out of the horrible Spanish Civil War and into peace.

Here are some memorable literary treatments of historical terror:

1) Can’t start this list with any book other than Charles Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities,” depicting life during the Terror in France in the years after 1789.

2) A number of people retweeted British author Adel Darwish‘s comment earlier today that the fate of Gaddafi’s body reminded him of the scene in “The Iliad” when Priam begs Achilles for the release of Hector’s body as he was dragging it toward the Greeks’ camp. Coincidentally, The Economist has a nice review of four translations of Homer’s epic poem and recommends sticking with Richard Lattimore’s 60-year-old classic work while checking out Alice Oswald’s recent “Memorial” for a reminder of how shocking Homer’s gory descriptions are, even in the third millennium after he composed them. (Hat tip: Arts and Letters Daily.) I picked up our household copy of Robert Fitzgerald’s translation, a thoughtful gift from my sister, and was struck by how opening it practically anywhere at random yielded a graphic, blood-soaked description of killing.

3) Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning  “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” provides a snapshot of life in the Dominican Republic under Rafael Trujillo, as bad a ruler as they come.

Finally, Literary Kicks has an interesting post from last year by Claudia Moscovici on life in Ceausescu’s Romania. And Britain’s The Daily Mail has a piece on the demises of several notable tyrants, concluding with The One That Got Away: Josef Stalin, who, unlike his fellow tyrants, was never deposed and died in his bed of natural causes.

This Friday night I’m wishing for an end to terror in Libya and elsewhere, and a return to peace and the rule of law. Since Germany, Spain, Romania, France, Greece, and many other countries who have had awful periods of terror now enjoy peace and democracy, there must be hope.

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