Robert Ferguson, 1942-2017

Academic whose writing fused law and literature remembered

August 31, 2017
Robert Ferguson

A legal scholar who helped pioneer the law and literature movement has died.

Robert Ferguson was born in Catonsville, Maryland in January 1942 and grew up there before going on to study at Harvard University (1964). After a year at the London School of Economics and Political Science on a Fulbright Scholarship, he returned to Harvard for a law degree (1968) and then a PhD in American civilisation (1974). After a number of shorter-term positions, he worked in the English department at the University of Chicago from 1978 to 1989, latterly as the Andrew W. Mellon professor in the humanities (1987-89).

It was at this point that Professor Ferguson joined Columbia University, initially in the English department, although he moved over into the law school in 1995, serving as the George Edward Woodberry professor of law, literature, and criticism until he retired and became emeritus in 2016.

Always committed to interdisciplinary perspectives, Professor Ferguson often introduced literary sources into his courses. What lawyers learn in court, he explained, is that “unless it’s a story the jury has heard before and believes, you won’t win the case. Storytelling is central. An understanding of point of view and narrative can make you a more conscious wordsmith as a lawyer.”

Such themes were also central to many of Professor Ferguson’s publications: from Law and Letters in American Culture (1984) to Practice Extended: Beyond Law and Literature (2016). He also produced a number of works on broader themes such as The American Enlightenment, 1750-1820 (1997), Reading the Early Republic (2004) and The Trial in American Life (2007). Even more significant was Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment (2014), which arose out of the confusion he found among his students about the appropriate punishments for different crimes.

Inferno was reviewed enthusiastically, with a critic in The Atlantic writing: “If I won the $400 million Powerball lottery last week, I swear I would have ordered a copy for every member of Congress, every judge in America, every prosecutor, and every state prison official and lawmaker who controls the life of even one of the millions of [prison] inmates”. Professor Ferguson received an avalanche of letters from prisoners, which led him to reflect ruefully that “the only people thinking hard about the nature of legal punishment are behind bars”. He also worked on a follow-up, Metamorphosis: How to Transform Punishment in America, due for publication next year.

Professor Ferguson died on 1 July and is survived by his wife Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson.

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