Writer, editor, novelist, educator, and attorney. Amherst College, professor of law, jurisprudence, and social thought.
(Editor, with Austin Sarat and Martha Merrill Umphrey) The Place of Law, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 2003.
(With Alexander George) Sense and Nonsensibility: Lampoons of Learning and Literature, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2004.
(Editor, with Austin Sarat and Martha Merrill Umphrey) Law on the Screen, Stanford University Press (Stanford, CA), 2005.
(Editor, with Austin Sarat and Martha Merrill Umphrey) The Limits of Law, Stanford University Press (Stanford, CA), 2005.
(Editor, with Austin Sarat and Martha Merrill Umphrey) Law and the Sacred, Stanford University Press (Stanford, CA), 2006.
The Catastrophist (novel), Other Press (New York, NY), 2006.
(Editor, with Austin Sarat and Martha Merrill Umphrey) How Law Knows, Stanford University Press (Stanford, CA), 2006.
Contributor of articles to periodicals, including the Washington Post, Salmagundi, Representations, Yale Law Journal, Chronicle of Higher Education, and the Times Literary Supplement.
Contributor of fiction and humor to periodicals, including the New Yorker, Tikkun, Hudson Review, McSeeney's, and the New York Times Book Review.
Author of column for the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Lawrence Douglas is an author, editor, educator, and attorney who serves as a professor of law, jurisprudence, and social thought. He is the editor, with Austin Sarat and Martha Merrill Umphrey, of more than a half-dozen collections of essays, articles, and legal materials covering specific topics in law. For example, The Limits of Law contains scholarly examinations of the far extent of the law's "empirical and normative force," where the law as a concept and application can no longer impose control or influence, noted a reviewer in Law and Social Inquiry. The authors explore concepts such as law and terrorism, offers of amnesty, gestures of surrender, and states of emergency. The authors also look carefully at how law is rendered out of challenges and conditions encountered and resolved in the nebulous and illdefined limits of legal authority. In another work, Law on the Screen, the editors present a collection of essays that look at how law and legal life are influenced and transformed by mass-media images of the legal system. The contributors analyze law and film as narrative forms and as vehicles for changing the reception of law based on its representation in film.
Douglas's interest in the law also extends to the historic, and how legal understanding is shaped and influenced by significant trials of the past. In The Memory of Judgment: Making Law and History in the Trials of the Holocaust, Douglas looks at the trials of five prominent Holocaust participants to seek out ways in which the law judges unprecedented events, how (or whether) the trials effectively rendered justice on the horrific and unprecedented acts of the Holocaust, and how the trials served as a tool not only for attempting justice, but for teaching society about the nature of the Holocaust. Douglas analyzes trials such as the first Nuremberg, the Eichmann trial, and the Zundel trials of the latter half of the 1980s, in which a Canadian publisher of neo-Nazi materials was prosecuted for denying the Holocaust under a Canadian law barring willfully false public statements. "In this superb book," commented Rebecca Elizabeth Wittman in Ethics and International Affairs, Douglas contends that "Holocaust trials can serve successfully as pedagogical tools despite their inability to render true justice for crimes of such magnitude." Douglas "argues that it is indeed true that Holocaust trials are designed to teach lessons, and that this is a worthwhile goal that is often met," Wittman stated. With his analysis, Douglas "establishes convincingly that judicial inquiry into Nazi crimes promoted a parallel deepening of historical understanding of the Holocaust," noted Wittman, concluding that "trials of Holocaust crimes provide invaluable historical information even if their legal outcome is less than satisfactory." Reviewer Leora Bilsky, writing in the Journal of Modern History, commented that Douglas's work in this area is an "important contribution not only because of the new questions that it poses but also due to its sophisticated use of new theoretical approaches to law (such as narrative jurisprudence and victims' rights) in addressing these questions."
In Sense and Nonsensibility: Lampoons of Learning and Literature, Douglas and coauthor Alexander George take humorous aim at the world of academics. They posit a "Books without Borders" series that results in unlikely pairings of literary classics, such as Twain and Goethe's Huckleberry Faust and Dante and Faulkner's As I Lay Frying. They outline the curriculum of an "Affected Accent Summer Camp," where academics can go to learn a mysterious, maddening, or alluring foreign accent. They also offer unlikely advice to fellow academics and junior faculty members. Library Journal reviewer Valeda Dent called the book a "well written and creative reminder not to take it all so seriously," even in the sometimes ponderous and solemn pursuits of academia.
With The Catastrophist, his debut novel, Douglas settles firmly into the role of humorist with a story that is an "acerbic comedy of manners with serious issues," commented a Kirkus Reviews critic. In what Entertainment Weekly reviewer Jennifer Reese called a "highly amusing debut," Douglas introduces Daniel Wellington, a young, outwardly successful art history professor at the fictional Franklin College. Daniel appears to have everything a man in his position could want: a beautiful wife, secure tenure at work, a successful book, and a burgeoning professional career. Among his proudest achievements is a position on a panel to design and build a Holocaust memorial in Berlin. When his wife tells him that she is pregnant, however, Daniel's life begins a rapid spiral out of control. Gripped in the fear of impending parenthood and unwanted responsibility, Daniel proceeds to self-destruct, creating his own catastrophes and disasters in an inexplicable rush to demolish all that he has worked to create for himself. He works to sabotage his academic career; he sends a lewd e-mail to a flirtatious former student; he lies in interviews, claiming to be the child of Holocaust survivors when he is not; he alienates his wife and accuses her of cheating on him; and he himself tries to take on a number of affairs. When his wife miscarries, Daniel is relieved, but the damage is already done. In the end, "Daniel does survive, but doesn't exactly prevail," observed Bruce Allen in the Hollywood Reporter. Library Journal reviewer Andrea Kempf remarked that Douglas "has perfect pitch for the tone of academia," while Joanne Wilkinson, writing in Booklist, noted that he "takes increasingly funny shots at marriage, academia, and modern art." A Publishers Weekly contributor called the book "morbidly comic," and the Kirkus Reviews critic dubbed it "inventive."
Douglas told CA: "I've always been a passionate reader of fiction. When I was in high school, I read The Tin Drum, and thought this is what a novel has to be: a wildly imaginative, blackly humorous mess. In law school, I read Sentimental Education, and thought, no, this is what a novel has to be: a perfectly structured narrative of irony. My sensibility, if not my abilities, have remained Flaubertian. I started publishing stories and humor pieces after I arrived at Amherst, but the plan, all along, was to try my hand at the novel. During my last sabbatical, my family spent the year in London; every morning I'd take the tube from Hampstead to Euston Station, and then I'd walk to the British Library and write in the main reading room until early afternoon. I finished the novel in eight months, but then I had to polish, polish, polish.
"I like The Memory of Judgment; as far as academic books go, I think it's quite good, and if read as a whole, builds an interesting, cumulative set of insights. But The Catastrophist is certainly the book that I'm proudest of. I think a lot of things have to go right for a novel to work successfully, and I think for the most part, The Catastrophist is a success. And to my surprise, the process of writing it went rather smoothly. The polishing took lots of time, but I never found myself throwing away hundreds of pages of manuscript, writing myself into a corner, losing touch with my characters. It all came pretty naturally—I hope this doesn't jinx the next one.
"After The Memory of Judgment came out, I got a letter from one of the prosecutors of Slobodan Milosevic at the Hague. He said he wished that he and all the members of his staff had read the book before the trial had begun. This was highly gratifying, as I like the idea of my academic work having real consequences, modest as they may be. As for the novel, I hope the book provides pleasure. The pleasure I get from reading literature is very deep and refined. To impart that pleasure to others would be the highest reward of writing."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, March 1, 2006, Joanne Wilkinson, review of The Catastrophist, p. 60.
Entertainment Weekly, May 19, 2006, Jennifer Reese, review of The Catastrophist, p. 80.
Ethics and International Affairs, April, 2003, Rebecca Elizabeth Wittman, review of The Memory of Judgment: Making Law and History in the Trials of the Holocaust, p. 170.
Hollywood Reporter, April 10, 2006, Bruce Allen, "Three Novels Explore the Road to Maturity, Coming of Age," review of The Catastrophist, p. 15.
Journal of Modern History, June, 2003, Leora Bilsky, review of The Memory of Judgment, p. 398.
Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 2006, review of The Catastrophist, p. 198.
Law and Social Inquiry, winter, 2002, review of The Memory of Judgment, p. 191; summer, 2004, review of Law's Madness, p. 707; summer, 2004, review of The Place of Law, p. 707; fall, 2005, review of Law on the Screen, p. 861; winter, 2006, review of The Limits of Law, p. 261.
Library Journal, August, 2004, Valeda Dent, review of Sense and Nonsensibility: Lampoons of Learning and Literature, p. 76; May 1, 2006, Andrea Kempf, review of The Catastrophist, p. 77.
Publishers Weekly, February 20, 2006, review of The Catastrophist, p. 132.
Amherst College Department of Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought Web site,http://www.amherst.edu/ (November 1, 2006), biography of Lawrence Douglas.
Bookslut,http://www.bookslut.com/ (November 1, 2006), Natalie Moore, review of The Catastrophist.