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Reviewed by:
  • Civic Myths: A Law-and-Literature Approach to Citizenship
  • John Ernest
Civic Myths: A Law-and-Literature Approach to Citizenship. By Brook Thomas. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007. Pp. 320.)

Civic Myths: A Law-and-Literature Approach to Citizenship is a book that gestures forward, in effect, by looking back, so as to realize an oft-forgotten promise of American literary history. “Of all nations,” exclaimed Walt Whitman in 1855, “the United States with veins full of poetical stuff most need poets and will doubtless have the greatest and use them the greatest. Their Presidents shall not be their common referee so much as their poets shall” (Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: The First [1855] Edition [New York: Penguin, 1959], 8). While he avoids Whitman’s vigorous and sometimes eugenic nationalism, Brook Thomas embraces the possibility of the literary artist as civic referee, and in Civic Myths he looks at the stories that have emerged from the political and legal structures and practices of U.S. history. Arguing that literary texts can provide us with the opportunity and means [End Page 103] for realizing possibility in the face of contradictions and confusion, Thomas identifies three goals for this book. He works to “add to our understanding of . . . the country’s dynamic sense of citizenship” by exploring how selected literary texts “work on/with various civic myths”; to speculate “on how a work’s engagement with civic myths can, in some instances, help account for that work’s accrual of cultural capital”; and to “make a case for the role of selected works of literature in civic education” (5). If all of these goals indicate primarily a literary focus, Thomas’s deep grounding in legal and political history and theory emphasizes the seriousness of his claims for the role of literature in both civic education and public discussion.

Central to Thomas’s study are civic myths, which he presents as certain kinds of cultural narratives that shape, direct, or dominate individual or collective concepts of community. “Stories without specific authors,” he explains, “cultural narratives help give meaning to social practices that cannot necessarily find a basis in rational logic”(6). Nations, states, or “alternative forms of citizenship” (237), Thomas observes, inevitably are defined as much by their tensions—of and between philosophy and practice—as by their imagined order and stability, and “dialectical contradictions incapable of logical resolution, it seems, generate stories” (6). “So long as those contradictions persist,” he adds, “stories responding to them will persist”—stories, he argues throughout this book, that call for other stories, literary works that respond to, redirect, or otherwise encompass the guiding myths essential to citizenship. If civic myths “help give meaning to the practices of citizenship within particular cultures” (6), literary works provide the means by which that meaning can be examined, negotiated, and revised.

Thomas devotes the study to “different kinds of citizenship” addressed in select literary works (4). Through Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, Thomas examines the concept of “the good citizen,” while the concept of “the patriotic citizen” finds its focus through a consideration of Edward Everett Hale’s “Man without a Country.” One of the book’s strongest chapters is devoted to “the independent citizen” as highlighted in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and “the immigrant citizen” as described in Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men. Along the way, Thomas pays particular attention to what he terms the “cult of Lincoln,” which he explores from “multiple perspectives,” and which is the subject especially of a chapter on the 1866 Supreme Court case of Ex parte Milligan (4). In a series of profoundly insightful and carefully researched chapters, Thomas both illuminates and complicates the various ideals of citizenship he studies by guiding readers through the complex legal and historical terrain in which those ideals have been tested. [End Page 104]

Naturally, Thomas presents his book as a compendium of interrelated case studies, and he does not and cannot claim “to produce an exhaustive account of U.S. citizenship” (4). As one might expect, Thomas’s selection of texts for these case studies will be more satisfying to some readers than to others...


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pp. 103-105
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