Bar News - October 18, 2013
Opinion: Representations: New England Is Famous for Leaves, Not Lawyers
By: Michael Davidow
Fall is New England’s season. We should apply for a trademark if we can. I visited San Francisco in October one year, and the streets of Chinatown were ablaze with paper leaves, taped to the shop windows to remind the neighborhood children of the Kancamagus Highway (or Union Street in Manchester, which is just as pretty). We should sue for residual payments.
Fall means that school has started again, too. School is another thing that New England does well. If you throw a rock down any of our leaf-covered streets in the fall, you are likely to hit a small liberal arts college.
One thing New England is not famous for, however, is lawyers. There are Philadelphia lawyers (Woody Guthrie wrote a song about those); there are Wall Street lawyers (ditto); there are southern courthouse lawyers (cf. and cp., My Cousin Vinny). But in popular culture, your average New Englander tends to be a farmer, a fisherman, or a Kennedy.
This is not for lack of trying. George V. Higgins was a federal prosecutor from Boston who wrote a handful of terrific books in the 1970’s, like Cogan’s Trade and The Friends of Eddie Coyle. A movie of that last work appeared in 1973, starring Robert Mitchum and Peter Boyle. I showed it to my wife, so she could see what my youth looked like.
A little before Higgins, Richard Alpert made the scene. He wasn’t a lawyer himself, but he was a lawyer’s son, and that counts for something. He went from Newton, Massachusetts to Harvard College; from Harvard College to friendship with Timothy Leary; from friendship with Timothy Leary to a stint in India. He changed his name to Ram Dass and he published Be Here Now in 1971, as a paean to mindfulness and meditation. Not many lawyers read him, I guess.
Another New England non-lawyer who at least did us the courtesy of writing about lawyers was John Marquand, a native Bostonian who was active in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Marquand was a jack of all trades who found commercial success with detective stories starring an ethnic character named Mr. Moto, a Japanese riposte to Charlie Chan. Having reached that level of success, though, he turned his hand to his own world, upper-middle-class Boston, where he often used attorneys as his heroes. His novel, The Late George Apley, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1938, and H.M. Pulham Esq. represents another take on the same theme: the gentleman practitioner, conservative but productive, putting his shoulder to the grindstone of life and finding his efforts, all too often, in vain.
Marquand danced at the distant edge of the Jazz Age; and I wish I could write about John O’Hara here, too. But O’Hara came from Pennsylvania, and he usually wrote about bankers. He is simply worth a mention because he was a good, tough writer who gets forgotten too often in the shadow of his contemporaries, Hemingway and Faulkner.
Another Boston writer from Marquand’s time is better remembered today, anyway. Or pair of writers, I should say: H.A. Rey and his wife, Margret. It was surely due to their knowledge of the law that they saw fit to have Curious George thrown into jail for calling a false fire alarm.
Come to think of it, in fact, some of the best legal scenes in literature come from writers for children (even if they aren’t from New England). Another lawyer’s son, Kenneth Grahame, saw fit to include a full bench trial in The Wind in the Willows (his Toad has stolen an automobile, driven it recklessly, and disturbed the peace); while the jury trial undertaken by Lewis Carroll’s incorrigible Alice features a lizard, a rabbit, and assorted royalty (the rules of evidence are scrutinized with care, and the question of judicial discretion gets raised on appeal, too). Think also of Willy Wonka having Charlie and his ersatz friends sign releases for personal injury before allowing them to tour his factory.
"To be born is to be wrecked on an island," wrote J. M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, and a writer with great sympathy for children and childhood.
When you are exploring a brand new world, you are naturally interested in the rules that govern it. That curiosity leads some of us to become lawyers, some of us to become writers, and some of us to try both.
Michael Davidow is a staff attorney at the NH Public Defender office in Nashua and the author of Split Thirty, a novel about politics and advertising.