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Does the literary canon speak to our time?

Of course it does. Whatever else it is, The Odyssey is an account of post-traumatic stress disorder. Romeo and Juliet offers enduring insights into teen suicide, Othello into racism, King Lear into the indignities of aging.

Aren’t such readings reductionist? Not necessarily. Literature has historically been the primary vehicle through which cultures examined human psychology and behavior; explored social relations, roles and institutions; and dealt with the philosophical issues involving guilt, personal and collective responsibility, atonement, redemption, and forgiveness.

Many of our most powerful accounts of the life course, colonialism, family dynamics, political decision making and the ordeal of war are found not in history books or works of social science, but in literature.

Robert F. Barsky, an astute legal scholar and linguist whose research combines a focus on social justice, human rights and border and refugee studies, argues in his recent book, Clamouring for Legal Protection, that public understanding of the issues surrounding refugees and asylum can benefit greatly from the study of great works of literature. His book examines a host of classic and canonical texts—from The Odyssey, The Aeneid, The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost and Faust to Oroonoko, Frankenstein, Alice in Wonderland and the works of Kafka—that speak to issues involving displacement, persecution, exile, marginalization and xenophobia.

He argues—highly persuasively in my view—that the close reading of these texts not only illuminates contemporary issues involving migration, border crossings and the treatment of refugees but can instill a sense of empathy that reports from the United Nations or nongovernmental agencies have not. Precisely because readers already value these texts, fresh readings can build on pre-existing sympathies and identifications.

Barsky shows that literature from classical antiquity onward has been preoccupied with the displacements caused by environmental upheavals and natural disasters, with the absorption of outsiders and the supposed threats of subversion posed by newcomers. He makes a powerful case that because great works of literature serve as a common cultural currency, engaging with those texts is especially likely to promote empathy and an identification with the plight of contemporary refugees.

These works can not only help readers understand “the trials and tribulations of flight and border crossing,” the human experience of dislodgment from all that a people knew, and the confrontation with various gatekeepers, but how earlier societies reacted to what they considered infiltration or subversion or foreignness.

Barsky’s book is part of a trend in legal education that emerged in the late 20th century: the embrace of interdisciplinarity, which is apparent in the rise of the law and literature and the law and economics movements and of critical race theory. Indeed, many law professors at leading law schools now hold a Ph.D. in another discipline.

The interdisciplinary turn challenges a series of assumptions that had previously dominated the teaching of law. Thus, the law and economics movement evaluates legal statutes and judicial decisions in terms of efficiency and incentives, while critical race theory looks closely at the equity implications of laws and societal practices.

Basic tenets of the law and literature movement are that:

  • Legal issues can be found in many novels and other literary texts, and the close readings of works of literature can contribute fresh insights into the relationship between law and morality and justice.
  • Legal reasoning and the interpretation of the Constitution and statutes can benefit from the interpretive techniques used by literary critics.

Some works of literature, these scholars show—like Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Goethe’s Faust, Melville’s Billy Budd and Kafka’s The Trial—explicitly address legal issues. Others—like Aeschylus’s The Oresteia and Sophocles’s Antigone—analyze the relationship between law and morality. Still others, like Dickens’s Bleak House and The Pickwick Papers, critique legal norms and the functioning of legal institutions. Then there are works—like Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment—that deal with the complexity of legal judgment.

Literature can serve as a lens to open eyes to otherwise unacknowledged realities. Thus, a scholar might use a text like Snow Falling on Cedars to lay bare the seeming invisibility of racial privilege or use Middlemarch to explore structured inequalities within marriage and the power of cultural norms about spousal roles.

The embrace of interdisciplinarity has provoked intense controversy among legal scholars. The late Richard Posner, an ardent advocate for the law and economics movement, who served on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals and taught at the University of Chicago Law School, was a particularly staunch critic of the law and literature movement.

Posner took the position that since literary texts can be interpreted in any number of ways, the interpretive approaches used by literary critics are of little or no use to judges, who should instead read statutes in literal or common-sense ways. Otherwise, overly complex readings of laws will simply reinforce public skepticism about the objectivity of legal decision making and result in arbitrary judicial rulings that will undercut the law’s predictability.

But such criticism is, I think, grossly overstated. Barsky’s book, which was published on the 70th anniversary of the 1951 convention on the Status of Refugees, underscores literature’s power to expose, inform and sensitize and promote empathy, recognition and identification.

Today, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 82 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homelands as a result of persecution, violence, human rights violations and civil unrest—with millions remaining in refugee camps for a decade or longer. Over 40 percent are under the age of 18.

Many more people are stateless or have been forced to migrate out of economic necessity.

None of this, as Barsky so eloquently writes, is new.

Between 1330 and 1550, some 64,000 foreigners immigrated to England. During the 1590s, another influx of immigrants sparked a wave of riots. These events prompted a largely forgotten playwright named Anthony Munday to write a never-produced play entitled The Book of Sir Thomas More. William Shakespeare was brought in to rewrite a portion of the play, and the result is three handwritten pages that represent the only known literary manuscript in Shakespeare’s hand.

In the scene that Shakespeare drafted, Thomas More, King Henry VIII’s lord chancellor, “confronts a throng of rioters … who are calling for the banishment of immigrants … condemns their ‘mountainish inhumanity,’ and implores them to empathize with the plight of refugees.”

Here are some of Shakespeare’s words:

“Alas, alas! Say now the King/ As he is clement if th’ offender mourn,/ Should so much come too short of your great trespass/ As but to banish you: whither would you go?/What country, by the nature of your error,/ Should give you harbour?

“Go you to France or Flanders,/ To any German province, Spain or Portugal,/ Nay, anywhere that not adheres to England:/ Why, you must needs be strangers.”

If we are truly to understand the plight of refugees, asylum seekers, migrant workers, expatriates and evacuees, do read their memoirs and firsthand accounts and novels as well as the social science reports that document the challenges these people face. But also read the classic works that Barsky analyzes with such skill and which remind us that, irrespective of our ancestry, we are all descendants of people who have suffered exile, banishment and expatriation, who moved to flee intolerable conditions or in hopes of a better life

Thirty-nine times the biblical book of Exodus—in many respects, Western culture’s ur text—reminds us of our obligation toward those who have been displaced. Let’s not forget those words: “Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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