The Joy of Scholarship: Teaching Law and Writing History (published August 2020) is a memoir of research professor David J. Langum Sr.’s teaching and scholarship. In this interview, he discusses his eighth published book and the inspiration for it.
What was your inspiration to write this memoir?
I have kept a daily diary for many years, and as I entered my mis-called “golden years,” I had the desire to look back and gather a big picture look at what I had done with my life. Reading old papers and diary entries is research, even if only of oneself. The only possible reaction of a scholar doing research is the thought that he should write it up. There is a satisfaction in memorializing one’s triumphs and failures, and so I oriented the manuscript toward my career rather than my personal life. Not that my personal life has not had a generous share of failures, it was just that I did not think people would be as interested in reading about them. The desire to keep the book within a reasonable length led to dropping material that, if of interest to my family, would be of interest to almost no one else.
As an outsider, what were and are your impressions of Birmingham?
When I came to interview at Cumberland in 1985, I had never before visited Birmingham. I imagine it was because of television clips of Plains, Georgia, during the Carter years, but I had a vision of a flat, dusty plain, with many factories and smokestacks scattered here and there. As the plane came in for landing, I was absolutely delighted to see that Birmingham was actually hilly and covered with trees. That was a good beginning, but as time went by I discovered that Birmingham is actually a very cultured city. Birmingham had a few white-tablecloth restaurants in 1985, but their number has exploded since. The city has good museums, a wonderful symphony, a decent opera, and many small semi-professional theatres. In the 1980s it had a culture that encouraged friendly competition between various church choirs, and hardly a month went by without the performance of a requiem, cantata, or mass. In those same years Birmingham had three to four used bookstores, my personal index to civilization, and, four to five semi-hidden jazz joints. Fast forward to today, and one can see decline in the amount of choral music, the jazz joints are down to one, and there is no real used bookstore, not counting a remainder house that carries some used books. But with the restaurants, small theatres, museums, and the symphony, there is still a vibrant culture. Birmingham has more to offer than one would expect of a small city, and a city that is also easy to navigate and get around in.
What were your initial impressions of Cumberland School of Law?
To be honest, my initial impressions of Cumberland were not favorable, and I thought that I would probably stay four to five years and then move on. The curriculum was antiquated, no one seemed to have an interest in scholarship, and although there were some very good faculty members, too many seemed to me to have no qualifications but for being Southern good-old boys. I joined the faculty in 1985. That same year a new dean arrived. Parham Williams, dean from 1985 to 1996, ignited an explosion. Within a few years, new hiring practices brought in numerous young faculty who were dedicated to scholarly publication. A new tenure policy required substantial publication. The curriculum was modernized. The school sponsored large conferences open to the public, smaller shop talks among the faculty on their research, curricula on legal history and on law, religion, and culture, and brought in numerous visiting lecturers. This stimulation led to an explosion of faculty scholarship and publication. I was not the only one writing books, and my colleague and fellow legal historian, William G. Ross, published as many as I did. Others wrote dozens of law review articles. Faculty could easily obtain research grants for travel, compensated student research assistants, and summer research. Money was also available for travel to conventions of relevant legal subsets, for example, in my case the annual meetings of the American Society for Legal History. There was a vibrancy in the air. Now in 2021, scholarship still remains central to the faculty’s mission, although I feel not so much so as c.1990. However, the present realities of law school finances across the country has led to a trimming of visiting lecturers, conferences, and curricula. Funding for research travel and attendance at conferences is approaching nil.
What role did the law school play in facilitating the research and writing of your books?
The law school did not just facilitate my scholarship. It was the “sine qua non,” the absolute necessity. Cumberland paid for many research trips—transportation, meals, and lodging—to manuscript collections and archives all over the country. It provided paid research assistants, at one hectic point two simultaneously which was technically beyond the rules. The library gave me a conference room, which I could lock up and secure, for my exclusive use for 18 months during the research and writing of the Kunstler book. I could keep all my research materials in one place, and at the end of the day I did not have to put papers away, but could leave them at the exact place to begin the next day’s work. The room was ample in size, and my helpers could comfortably work alongside me. Cumberland paid the transportation, lodging, and meals for dozens of scholarly conferences I attended, 1985-2005. It always did so when I presented a paper at a conference, once going so far as to pay my roundtrip airfare to The Netherlands for me to deliver a paper at a conference sponsored by the Roosevelt Study Center. This generosity continued during all of my teaching career at Cumberland, although financial exigencies, widespread in legal academe, curtailed some of the largess during the period 2001-2005. As my publications increased, so also did salary enhancements, that only encouraged more productivity. Just as important as the financial benefits and help, Cumberland had an institutional culture of encouragement. My colleagues and the deans congratulated me on each new book. For three books I even received congratulatory notes from Tom Corts, the president of Samford University. I might have written two or three books without much help, but the proliferation of my scholarship, seven books and dozens of scholarly articles, was made possible only through the generosity of Cumberland School of Law. I am very grateful.
How did you select the subjects for your seven books written before the memoir?
The most significant requirement in selecting a topic is that the author be fascinated by the historical period and place setting, or, if a biography, then that the author be intrigued by the personality or accomplishments of the subject. Longing to have lived in the historical setting or esteem for the biographical subject is not required, but a strong sense of fascination is a must. The typical scholarly university press book, even if eventually written in an accessible style, as I have attempted, demands at least two years of grinding research in hard-to-read manuscript papers or century-old printed documents, working hour after hour in archival or manuscript collections. Then comes another year of writing. All of this is solitary work, with very little feedback as to how one is doing. Fascination with subject or historical topic is the only thing that can carry a person through this.
A second significant consideration in selecting a topic is the existence of a sufficient amount of primary source material—letters, diaries, transcripts of litigation, etc.—needed to carry out the project. History and biography both depend on written sources, and there have been projects I have begun with great enthusiasm, only to drop them when I discovered there was not enough material to support a book. The Antonio de Mattos book was the only book I have written where there was arguably insufficient source material. The difficulty I had in writing that book, constantly digging for facts, only supports the generalization that a sufficient amount of primary material ought to be available to support a book-length manuscript. Before beginning the basic research for a history or biography, the scholar must conduct a preliminary search for available resources for the topic. The Internet has been of substantial help in this preliminary search for sources.
All of the subjects of my seven books written prior to the memoir have met these requirements.
Law and Community on the Mexican California Frontier: Anglo-American Expatriates and the Clash of Legal Traditions, 1821-1846 (1987)
I lived in California for 16 years prior to becoming a full-time law teacher, and became very interested in her history. I particularly became intrigued with the period when California under Mexican sovereignty, and in fact concentrated on this time period for my M.A. in history that I earned at San Jose State University while I was practicing law. I published each chapter of my master’s thesis separately as articles in scholarly journals. Years later I thought I should combine my interest in Mexican California with my legal training and focus on the Mexican California legal system and how it treated American and British expatriates living in California during the years of Mexican control. I used an earlier version of the book as the dissertation for my doctorate from the University of Michigan.
Thomas O. Larkin: A Life of Patriotism and Profit in Old California (1990)
Harlan Hague, my coauthor, was writing a biography of Thomas O. Larkin, American consul in Mexican California and her leading merchant. Harlan asked me to write the first part of Larkin’s life from his New England beginnings, ventures in North Carolina, through his role as California’s leading merchant. Harlan would concentrate on his official duties as American consul and his later land speculations. At first I felt reluctant, since I thought I should concentrate on legal history. But Harlan was such a good importuner that I came around to the work. After all, much of it involved Mexican California and I was already quite familiar with Larkin, although not so much as I soon would be after reading four volumes of his published correspondence and many boxes of his unpublished papers.
Crossing over the Line: Legislating Morality and the Mann Act (1994)
I had been fascinated by the Mann Act since law school. The use of the statute to prosecute madams for transporting prostitutes did not particularly interest me, but I was outraged that the federal government would imprison men for a journey with a girlfriend across a state line. It offended my libertarian beliefs, and I wanted to learn why a law designed to prevent the shipment of so-called “white slaves,” could possibly be extended to include boyfriend-girlfriend travel. I also wanted to know how federal courts handled this sordid attempt to impose morality when faced with the social fact of the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s. I used the National Archives and the National Record Centers for much of my research and did some research and even more writing in New York City while I was a Golieb Fellow at the New York University School of Law.
From Maverick to Mainstream: Cumberland School of Law, 1847-1997 (1997)
Five or six years before Cumberland’s sesquicentennial, I had the thought that a good institutional history of the school would be an appropriate commemoration of the 150 year history, filled as it was with many ups and downs, high and low spots. I spoke with our dean because realistically I would need funding and also because I wanted to make clear that I was not interested in writing the typically boosterish nonsense that generally passes as institutional history. I wanted to write a truly honest and analytical history, and let the chips fall where they might in terms of administrators, faculty, and students. He was in full agreement. This time around, it was me who needed a coauthor, one who understood the southern complexities of the later 20th century story better than I, raised in the Midwest, ever would. I found a coauthor in a colleague, Howard Walthall, an Alabamian who understood all these various groups, and was also a Harvard graduate in history and law. I had the most interesting and enjoyable locales in which to write my portion of the book than for any other book. I rented a house in Gulf Shores, immediately on the beach, for December 1994, and followed this by renting a townhouse in Dublin, Ireland, for June and July 1995, where I wrote my final three chapters. I had so much fun in both Gulf Shores and Dublin that I wrote up these up in my memoir.
William M. Kunstler: The Most Hated Lawyer in America (1999)
I knew I wanted to write Kunstler’s biography as soon as I finished reading his obituary in the New York Times. Here was a man who sought out society’s outcasts to represent, the Chicago Seven, the Attica prison rioters, Colin Ferguson, the Long Island Railroad shooter, and so forth, using their stories to attack the establishment and attack the government. What a complex character. He majored in French at Yale, enjoyed classical music, followed the New York Mets, wrote sonnets, read French poetry, wrote numerous books, and enjoyed opera. Tosca, featuring a revolutionary as hero, was his favorite. I found more than 100 published interviews of the man, and even more news articles. I read all of these as well as his books and even those of his sonnets which were published. But for this book, more than any other, I also relied on interviews. Kunstler was a contemporary and many people were available to talk with me. I interviewed his sister, his two wives, his four children, several personal friends, all of his former law partners, several prosecutors with whom he had crossed swords, three or four former clients, and several judges he had tried cases before. I did not necessarily agree with the radical positions Kunstler sometimes took nor the people he sometimes represented. But as a libertarian, I always admired his willingness and ability to fight the power of the government.
Antonio de Mattos and the Protestant Portuguese Community in Antebellum Illinois (2006)
de Mattos was one of the earliest Portuguese Presbyterian ministers, and he pastored a small flock of Portuguese exiles who had fled from Madeira and settled into Jacksonville and Springfield, Illinois. Later, he returned to Portugal and became the first openly operating Protestant minister in Portugal, and helped to found the Portuguese Presbyterian Church. He is also my great great grandfather, but the family connection is very tenuous. My own grandfather, Antonio’s grandson, knew almost nothing about his grandfather except for a very few misleading remembrances of his father. But he did have a small collection of letters and ephemera from Antonio and his two sons that my own grandfather kept in a paper bag in his basement. After his death, my mother kept the same bag of papers in her basement, and then upon her death they came into my possession, and were kept in the same paper bag, only in my basement. I feel certain that no one actually read these papers during this long period. In 2000, I decided to take a look. If a trained historian who is also a relative did not look them over, then who ever would? I did read them and saw an interesting story, filled with hard work, controversies, lawsuits, in the few dozen letters in the bag. I decided to write up the story, in part because of the challenge presented by such a paucity of hard evidence. My research became a detective game, where I had to ferret out a few facts and then expand on them. It was interesting because the research was the exact opposite that generally presented a biographer. Usually a biographer gathers a plethora of materials, wades into them, and figures out the main themes, and creates a coherent account from massive amounts of documentation. Here, I had to begin with small details and then expand outward. That process meant massive amounts of correspondence with people all around the world, seeking specific information or leads to further avenues of research.
Quite Contrary: The Litigious Life of Mary Bennett Love (2014)
Love was a rambunctious woman, who crossed the plains in a wagon train, left her husband while in Mexican California, obtained a small Mexican land grant by forging her son’s signature to the petition, and owned a sawmill in the Santa Cruz Mountains. She occupied some unused government land as soon as she heard the Americans had invaded California, thus qualifying herself for a pre-emptive right for a large portion of Santa Clara, California. Mary was very knowledgeable of the law, was quite litigious, and was a general hellion of Santa Clara. I had been interested in this gigantic woman, 6 feet tall and over 300 pounds, since the 1970s, when I lived not far from her old land grant, and I did some basic research on her during that time. I put her project on the back burner because I did not believe it was sufficiently “legal” for a budding legal historian. When I revisited the research in the 2010s I discovered there were many interesting legal aspects to her biography. During the time I wrote the book I donated my 850 book collection of books on Mexican California to the Monterey County Historical Society. The Mary Bennett Love book, for me, was a kind of literary farewell to Mexican California.
Who might you recommend read your memoir and for what purposes?
The Joy of Scholarship should be of interest to anyone who wants to understand the culture of legal academe from the faculty’s viewpoint. That would include other academics, both in law schools as well as other departments, and additionally anyone outside the academy who has thought that they might be interested in teaching law as a career. The extensive discussion of how I organized my research and connected its results to a detailed outline of the manuscript ought to be of interest to anyone who aspires to write a scholarly book.
The Joy of Scholarship is available to purchase from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.