By Daniel J. Kornstein, Published by Authorhouse, 290 pages, $16
The celebrity of John Grisham, Scott Turow and others has made the lawyer novelist an accepted part of our popular culture. However, the relationship between law and literature is more complex than the Grisham or Turow legal thriller.
The exploration of law and literature as a distinct course of study in law school has evolved over the past 30 years. Daniel J. Kornstein, a partner at Kornstein, Veisz, Wexler & Pollard, through his articles, books and participation in conferences, has been a leader in this field. Mr. Kornstein’s “Unlikely Muse: Legal Thinking and Artistic Imagination” is a thought-provoking study of the influence that law may have on the creative process.
Kornstein presents a list of writers (Balzac, Goethe, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Kafka, Hugo and many others), poets (Wallace Stevens, Ovid, John Donne, Edgar Lee Masters and others), artists (Matisse, Cezanne and Kandinsky) and composers (Tchaikovsky, Handel, Schumann, Stravinsky, Cole Porter and others) who have all studied law. By examining the works of French novelist Honoré de Balzac, American poet Wallace Stevens and American playwright, memoirist and screenwriter, Lillian Hellman, Daniel Kornstein demonstrates how the study (and at times the practice) of law influences the works of these literary figures.
Honoré de Balzac studied law and clerked in a law office before he abandoned the practice of law to become a novelist. However, lawyers and legal themes appeared in many of Balzac’s works.
In the novels “Le Colonel Chabert” and “Le Pere Goriot,” Balzac portrays an ethical lawyer of lost causes, Derville, who truly fights for the rights of the little man. The evil, unscrupulous lawyer Delbecq appears in “Colonel Chabert” and “Lost Illusions.” Kornstein notes that Balzac’s knowledge of the law and the discipline it requires influenced many of his works.
Kornstein takes issue with Professor Richard Weisberg of Cardozo Law School, who excludes Balzac from the law and literature canon because Balzac does not write about relevant topics. It is Kornstein’s view that the relevancy of issues should not be the only criteria for including an author in the law and literature canon. To Kornstein, Balzac’s “Human Comedy” has numerous legal themes and issues, as well as lawyer characters, and those are sufficient reasons to study his works in the context of law and literature.
Kornstein’s study of Wallace Stevens, one of the great poets of the 20th century, is fascinating. Unlike Balzac, who abandoned the practice of law and felt that its practice thwarted his creativity, Stevens practiced law and wrote poetry throughout his professional life.
Wallace Stevens attended Harvard but left before graduating to try to become a writer in New York City. Finding it difficult to make a living as a writer and poet, Stevens enrolled in New York Law School in what is now Tribeca in downtown Manhattan. He was admitted to the New York bar in 1904. Stevens had several jobs and periods of unemployment before he took a position at Hartford Accident and Indemnity in 1916, where he remained until his death in 1955.
Stevens truly led a double life, handling claims for Hartford Accident and Indemnity during the day and writing poetry in the evening. Although articles have been written about Stevens, the lawyer poet, Kornstein believes none has examined the law’s influence on Stevens’ poetry. Kornstein notes the many legal themes in Stevens’ poetry, including explicit legal references and the exploration of law and imagination.
In examining Stevens as a poet, Kornstein contrasts him with Archibald MacLeish, a contemporary of Stevens and someone who studied law but rejected it for poetry. MacLeish considered “the practice of law a means of making a living and probably having a good intellectual time doing it”; poetry, on the other hand “is something that involves your entire being. And they just don’t blend.” Obviously Stevens disagreed, although he noted that “none of the great things in life had anything to do with making a living.”
Lillian Hellman did not study law, but her works dealt with legal issues and during her life she took on significant legal causes. Kornstein had a personal interaction with Lillian Hellman, which may partially explain her inclusion in “Unlikely Muses.”
Kornstein was handling on behalf of actress Vanessa Redgrave. Ms. Redgrave’s contract with the Boston Symphony Orchestra was terminated, allegedly as a result of remarks she had made supporting the Palestinian cause in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Hellman submitted an affidavit on behalf of Redgrave comparing her treatment to the blacklisting during the McCarthy era. Hellman died several months after submitting the affidavit.
Kornstein notes that in Hellman’s plays “Days to Come” and “The Children’s Hour” important legal issues were addressed. In the “Children’s Hour,” Hellman examined the destructive effect that false accusations of lesbianism had on two teachers at a private school. “Days to Come” is based upon an actual event, the trial of leader Big Bill Haywood for the murder of a governor who had called in federal troops to quell a strike. Clarence Darrow was the defense attorney. The play presents the events leading up to the trial and the trial itself.
Hellman also wrote three volumes of memoirs. It has often been stated that Hellman, at times, fictionalized her memoirs. In an interesting chapter entitled “Truth in Law,” Kornstein explores this issue. He notes that the memoir is really an art form, and that everyone’s life is really a novel. The problem is faulty memory. In discussing the role of truth at a trial Kornstein states that:
The ascertainment of the truth is not necessarily the target of the trial, that values other than truth frequently take precedence and that indeed, courtroom truth is a unique species of the genus truth and that it is not necessarily congruent with objective or absolute truth, whatever that may be.
Throughout her career Hellman challenged the establishment. She was an outspoken critic of the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy era. She brought a suit against Samuel Goldwyn Productions and CBS relating to licensing rights, which taught writers to more carefully read their contracts. Late in her life she brought a libel action against writer Mary McCarthy for remarks McCarthy had made during an interview with Dick Cavett. Hellman died before the trial was conducted.
Hellman’s life, through her plays, screenplays and memoirs, as well as the way she supported her principles through litigation, was a testament to the influences law can have on literature.
By examining the works of three types of literary figures, Kornstein demonstrates that the influence law has on literature may take more than one form. Balzac studied and practiced law only briefly, rejecting it because he thought it thwarted his creativity, and yet legal themes and issues appear throughout his significant body of work.
Stevens was the rare attorney who led a double life, an insurance attorney by day and an acclaimed poet by night. Hellman, although a non lawyer, was clearly influenced by legal principles and issues throughout her varied career. All three were influenced by their study or knowledge of the law. Law did indeed serve as an unlikely muse for them. “Unlikely Muse” is an important addition to the expanding study of law and literature by one of its foremost proponents, Daniel Kornstein.
Alan Fell is a partner at Rick Steiner Fell & Benowitz.