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Professor examines concepts of personhood, citizenship and identity in law and literature

Bernadette Meyler

Dec 13 2021

In what ways do culture, politics, race, gender and carceral status influence concepts of identity such as personhood and citizenship? As a scholar of law and literature, who is writing a new textbook, Law and Literature: An Introduction, Carl and Sheila Spaeth Professor of Law Bernadette Meyler presented a chapter in progress on “Law, Literature and Identity” to the Clayman Institute Faculty Research Fellows in its final meeting of the 2020-2021 fellowship year. Meyler also serves as Stanford Law School’s associate dean for curriculum and a professor by courtesy of English and comparative literature.

Meyler started the book project after she was approached by an editor, who pointed out the only textbook on law and literature was written by someone who began as a critic of the field. Its author Richard Posner, a federal judge and founder of the law and economics movement, was not really a participant in the scholarly study of law and literature. “It’s time for an introduction that is a more internal work,” Meyler said.

She described three dimensions of the field. The first, law in literature, concerns works such as Charles Dickens’ Bleak House or William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, that center stories about legal cases or courtrooms. Law as literature concerns issues of literary interpretation or hermeneutics in legal texts, while law of literature refers to legal issues surrounding writers and literature, such as censorship, copyright, or the trial of Oscar Wilde for obscenity. Within these dimensions, issues for examination include history, theoretical approaches, techniques for thinking about the relationship of law and literature, central themes and literary genres (such as detective fiction).

People often take too seriously only the first section of the 14th amendment, Meyler said, but “centering citizenship rather than personhood might lead us also to different views on some contemporary problems, including that of felon disenfranchisement.”

Meyler situates her chapter-in-progress on identity among those central themes. In her examination of contemporary approaches to such concepts as personhood, agency and possessive individualism, she references the work of a wide range of scholars and artists, from Caleb Smith, Martha Nussbaum, Walter Johnson, Imani Perry and Anne Cheng to playwright Anna Deveare-Smith and poets Tracy K. Smith and Claudia Rankine. “One of the insights of this second generation scholarship is that much of life plays out in the space between two stark opposites,” Meyler said. “Law and literature makes persons who are neither masterfully self-possessed autonomous subjects nor stripped of all agency socially or civilly dead.” 

She discusses a crucial source of individual rights, the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which mentions both persons and citizens. People often take too seriously only the first section of the 14th amendment, Meyler said, but “centering citizenship rather than personhood might lead us also to different views on some contemporary problems, including that of felon disenfranchisement.” She describes themes of disenfranchisement in a recent literary work engaging with mass incarceration, Deveare Smith’s Notes from the Field, which looks at both individual incidents and the larger school-to-prison pipeline, crossing the boundary between research-based commentary and art. One character really only learns about citizenship through the education she receives in prison.

Other important issues regarding law and identity include the dignity-based rationale for personhood with regard to same-sex marriage and references to personhood in cases of immigration.  Meyler said, “I am interested in this chapter in taking up this critique of personhood and presenting an enhanced conception of citizenship, as opposed to personhood, through the methodological tools furnished by second-generation scholars of law and literature.”

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