In Reconstituting Authority, William Moddelmog explores the ways in which American law and literature converged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Through close readings of significant texts from the era, he reveals not only how novelists invoked specific legal principles and ideals in their fictions but also how they sought to reconceptualize the boundaries of law and literature in ways that transformed previous versions of both legal and literary authority.
Moddelmog does not assume a sharp distinction between literary and legal institutions and practices but shows how writers imagined the two fields as engaged in the same cultural process. He argues that because the law was instrumental in setting the terms by which concepts such as race, gender, nationhood, ownership, and citizenship were defined in the nineteenth century, authors challenging those definitions had to engage the law on its own terrain: to place their work in a dialogue with the law by telling stories that were already authorized (though perhaps suppressed) by legal institutions.
The first half of the book is devoted in separate chapters to William Dean Howells, Helen Hunt Jackson, and Pauline Hopkins. The focus shifts from large theoretical concerns to questions of contract and native sovereignty, to issues of African American citizenship and racial entitlement. In each case the discussion is rooted in a larger consideration of the rule (or misrule) of law.
The second half of the book turns from the rule of law to the issue of property, specifically the Lockean version of the self that tied identity to legal conceptions of property and economic value. In separate discussions of Charles Chesnutt, Edith Wharton, and Theodore Dreiser, Reconstituting Authority reveals authors as closely engaged with those changing perspectives on property and identity, in ways that challenged the racial, gendered, and economic consequences of America's possessive individualism.
“Moddelmog moves throughout with accomplished assurance, making a powerful argument based on his expertise in both legal and literary history, establishing the terms of his engagement with other interdisciplinary voices, and producing genuinely original and interesting readings of canonical texts. Reconstituting Authority will become an important, well-received text, lending authority to the developing field of law and literature studies. ” —Lee Mitchell, Holmes Professor of Belles-Lettres, Princeton University
“Doubly equipped as literary scholar and former lawyer, Moddelmog brings sophistication and lucidity to his critical probings of a set of crucial post-Reconstruction legal arguments: the property rights assigned to ‘whiteness,’ American Indian claims to nationhood, the consequences of ‘passing’ between mandated lines of identity, redefinitions of marriage and divorce law, and the struggle of authors and lawyers alike not to fail amidst the shifting status of ‘professionalism’ and ‘authority’ impinging upon publishing house and courtroom.”—Martha Banta, professor emeritus, University of California, Los Angeles
“Setting forth a provocative new interpretation of key texts in nineteenth-century American literature and law, Reconstituting Authority displays Moddelmog’s careful command of legal theory, contemporary reinterpretations of legal realism, and recent constructions of race and gender. Historicism and theory challenge the boundaries of classic literature in his analysis, while also sustaining its capacity to express the ethical values of culture.”—Eric L. Sundquist, dean, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, Northwestern University