Robert Fer­gu­son, 1942-2017

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - Matthew.reisz@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­

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 fol­lowup, 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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