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Law School Utopian

Q. What is your favorite book written by a Boalt Hall faculty member? I don’t mean a casebook or a textbook, but maybe a good novel? Are there any? --EW, Berkeley

A. While he’s not exactly Trollope, Austen or Waugh, my vote would go to Professor Austin Tappan Wright, who left behind nearly 600,000 words of an unpublished utopian novel when he was killed in 1931. His is an imaginary world well worth exploring.

A native of New Hampshire, Austin Tappan Wright attended Harvard Law School (Class of 1908) where he made law review and was graduated cum laude. After practicing with Louis Brandeis’s Boston law firm, Wright was hired by Boalt Hall in 1916 to teach Common Law Procedure, the Law of Associations, and the Law of Persons. He eventually specialized in Admiralty and Maritime Law. Wright taught at Berkeley until 1924, when he accepted an appointment at the University of Pennsylvania.

Few of his colleagues knew that at least since his days as a law student Wright had been working on a utopian novel he called Islandia. After his death in an automobile accident in New Mexico, his daughter pared down the unwieldy manuscript to a little over 1000 pages, and this abridged version was published by Henry Holt & Co. in 1942. The novel is the story of John Lang, an undergraduate at Harvard whose roommate, Dorn, is an international student from a country called Islandia. (The country lies in the Southern Hemisphere, somewhere in the neighborhood of Australia, New Zealand and Antarctica.) From his roommate Lang learns the Islandian language, and becomes fluent enough that after graduation he is appointed as American Consul to the island nation. Lang sails to Islandia in 1905 and discovers a highly-advanced but primarily agrarian society, one that is struggling to fight off an attempt by evil Germans to exploit the land’s untapped mineral resources.

Islandia’s culture is an ancient one largely uncontaminated by outside influences, a purity they maintain by enforcing the Hundred Law which limits the number of foreign visitors to one hundred at a time. Lang soon falls under the spell of a life lived in complete harmony with nature, one that combines arduous physical work with refined intellectual attainment. Like Tolkien, Wright developed a complete written language, history, literature and geography for his imaginary country. Most of that material remains unpublished in Harvard’s Houghton Library.

The novel is unfortunately marred by racism. The villains of the novel (second to the evil Germans) are a tribe of black barbarians. Their role in the novel is very minor, but still disturbing. Professor Wright was obviously inflicted with the type of pernicious yet unreflective prejudice against people of color that was endemic to his era. Yet at the same time he was the type of man who, when talking to his wife from a pay phone, would remove his hat as a gesture of respect. (Those of us who have overheard law students texting on the toilet will appreciate how times have changed.)

The Introduction to the 2001 reprinting of the novel (available from the best known e-retailer) includes a cogent observation: “Wright’s Islandia, despite its frankness about sex, bears many of the hallmarks of nineteenth century literature, concerned with testing the boundaries and niceties of human behavior against the responsibilities and inequities of society at large.”

This is the season for losing oneself in a good, long novel. As the days shorten and the sky turns ominous, Islandia is the perfect book to read curled up before a crackling fire, clutching a hot mug of one’s beverage of choice.

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