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Bar News - June 18, 2014

Opinion: Learning from Learned Hand and Holden Caulfield


Judge Learned Hand of New York City was a lifelong Republican who voted for Franklin Roosevelt three times, an unhappy husband who blamed his careerism for the failure of his marriage, and a good friend of the novelist J.D. Salinger, who once referred to him as a “true karmic yogi.” He was also the man who defined “the qualities that clear the path towards truth” as being these: “skepticism, tolerance, discrimination, urbanity, some – but not too much – reserve towards change, insistence upon proportion, and above all, humility before the vast unknown.”

It has been a long time since lawyers have been recognized in the public eye as being interested in the metaphysics of truth – and a long time since a famous jurist would become good friends with a famous writer (though maybe such friendships were in the air, back then; when New Hampshire’s own Sherman Adams worked for President Eisenhower, he used to bring over Robert Frost for lunch in the White House). I came across that marvelous quote not from its source, anyway (a collection of Hand’s speeches and writings called The Spirit of Liberty, published in 1952) but from reading Harry McPherson’s A Political Education, written in 1972. That book is a memoir of its attorney-author’s career in Washington as an assistant to President Lyndon Johnson: one Texan writing about another Texan. And that’s fitting. Because the idea that a lawyer might be wise in not just the law but in philosophy as well owes a great deal to the special role that lawyers played in the old American South.

For decades, the south was more rural than the rest of the country. It was also poorer, and its inhabitants tended to be less educated. So in many southern towns, the doctor and the lawyer loomed quite large: They had graduated from college; they had obvious wealth; and not least, because their practices were so generalized, they had experience with many different facets of life. Put simply, they were privy to secrets. So they developed the reputation of being wise. The southern courthouse lawyer is one of America’s greatest cultural characters.

You can see this played out most plainly, in real life, in the succession of southern politicians who dominated the United States Congress for most of the 20th century, men like Richard Russell, Sam Ervin, and Russell Long. But you can also see it in the respect that Scott Fitzgerald always afforded his father-in-law, for his position as judge in Montgomery, Alabama. And you can see it in fiction, too.

The most famous example, of course, is Atticus Finch, the lawyer-hero of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The novel was written in 1960 and the film starring Gregory Peck came just two years later (for those who like such things). But that was not even Peck’s best turn as a southern lawyer in 1962, because Cape Fear was released that same year, too.

Another example involves Peck more tangentially: the 1949 war movie, Twelve O’Clock High, in which he plays the high-strung leader of a squadron of bomber planes, and the great Dean Jagger plays his calm and patient executive officer: a man whose civilian background, naturally enough, was “lawyer.” And the theme of the attorney as the guardian of wisdom even remained strong enough to survive Jack Nicholson’s version of it, as the white-suited town drunk in Easy Rider, from 1969. He looks like Peck’s illegitimate son.

Learned Hand was pretty far from a small-town lawyer, of course. He was big-city all the way, just like his friend Salinger – even though the latter spent the last few decades of his life as a resident of Cornish, New Hampshire.

And Salinger could not help himself: When he writes about a lawyer, he makes that lawyer a true city type. In The Catcher in the Rye, from 1951, Holden Caulfield’s father is identified as a “big shot corporate lawyer” from Manhattan. I used to think that Salinger was implying something critical about Holden’s dad, by calling him that. But I am not so sure anymore.

In the book, Holden thinks the world of his siblings: his big brother D.B., his little sister Phoebe, his late brother Allie. He apparently feels that his parents raised a bunch of wonderful kids. And he himself is clearly meant to appear sensitive and intelligent. The fact that his dad is largely absent from his story, then, is merely indicative of the companion fact that he and his siblings have been allowed to grow and prosper on their own. That absence, finally, does not seem cruel at all. It rather represents a certain distance.

Another word for which, is tolerance; or skepticism; or reserve. All qualities that Salinger’s friend, Learned Hand, developed as a lawyer.

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. The author’s opinions are his own and do not represent the opinions of his employer, or the NH Bar Association.

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