Taming the Past: A Celebration of Bob Gordon’s Law and History Scholarship

When Robert Gordon’s first essay on legal history was written in 1975, the field was small with very little scholarship on the subject, “the entire bibliography of books and articles worth reading on American legal history could fit on a list of one or two pages long,” he said.

Today, the field is both broad in its scholarship and significant in its size, with faculty teaching the subject at most major law schools (including Stanford Law School, which has on the order of a dozen faculty members whose work touches on the field in some way, with a handful focused on it as a primary discipline).

A legal historian whose work has influenced generations of scholars and whose teaching and mentorship has prepared dozens of leaders in the field, Gordon, Professor of Law at Stanford (Chancellor Kent Professor of Law and Legal History, emeritus, Yale Law School), has helped to lay the building blocks for the field, one article at a time.

“Bob Gordon helped to reinvent the field of legal history. His scholarship and comradery really cannot be overstated,” said M. Elizabeth Magill, Richard E. Lang Professor of Law and Dean.

Robert Gordon’s work was the subject of a recent celebration, or a “Bobfest,” as it became known during a two-day gathering at Stanford Law School in late January. The focus of the fête was the newly-published collection, Taming the Past: Essays on Law in History and History in Law.

“His essays, including several reprinted here, established the theoretical foundations for much of the work in the field of legal history—foundations that remain in place to this day,” wrote John Fabian Witt, from Yale Law School, and Sarah Barringer Gordon, from Penn Law School, both of whom helped to organize the gathering, in the introduction to the collection.

Over the course of two days, a virtual who’s who in law and history from across the country convened at Stanford Law School to reflect on Gordon’s work and its influence. The fête was organized into five sessions with participants discussing his new book Taming the Past, the legal profession past and present, the common law tradition, legal histories, critical legal historicism, and even “Robert W. Gordon: wordsmith, theoretician, mensch”—a topic that reverberated throughout the gathering.

In one of the first sessions, Barbara Fried, William W. and Gertrude H. Saunders Professor of Law, spoke to the difficulty Gordon would have in listening to his colleagues discuss his work—and praise him.

“I sometimes think of Bob as surrounded by a force field that deflects every attempt at gratitude, praise, and credit, and just tries to sink it into some black hole in the floor so he won’t have to acknowledge it and people maybe won’t even hear it.  I assume, given that trait of Bob’s, that these two days are probably in some ways a living hell for him,” she said to the laughter of the group. “And I just want to say that I think it’s really good for you, Bob, to be made to suffer like this every once in a while, where you have no capacity to deflect what’s being said, and you just have to sit there and take it.”

Amalia Kessler, (MA ’96, PhD ’01) Lewis Talbot and Nadine Hearn Shelton Professor of International Legal Studies and director of the new Stanford Center for Law and History, one of six conference organizers, opened the gathering by highlighting Gordon’s “remarkable and rare combination of vast erudition, deep modesty, and infectious sense of humor.”  Recounting how she met Gordon for the first time as she was just beginning her graduate studies in law and history, she described her experience of discovering that he has “read everything there is to read” and “remembers every single word,” but always brings to bear in his interactions with others “an understated gentle modesty,” as well as a pervasive “sense of humor, . . . wit, . . . [and] irony.”

Norm Spaulding, also one of the fête organizers, likened reading Gordon’s work to listening to the jazz great Thelonious Monk. “You quickly realize, as you read, that you are in the presence of an iconoclast who adores what he deconstructs, who deconstructs lovingly … an artist who wants you not just on the edge of your seat of settled expectations about law and history and the legal profession but off it. …”

“Bob has brought all of us a deep awareness of what Michel de Certeau calls ‘the arts of doing’—all the bits of a human project that are normally taken for granted, operating below the fold of consciousness that not only constitute the project but the person engaged in it,” continued Spaulding, JD 97, Nelson Bowman Sweitzer and Marie B. Sweitzer Professor of Law.

Ariela Gross, JD ’94 (MA ’91, PhD ’96), another of the event organizers, took classes with Gordon when she attended Stanford Law School. Now a professor at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law, she shared with the group her experiences working with Gordon on the last essay in his book, an article called “Undoing Historical Injustice.” “He modeled for me exactly what to aim for as we try to bring critical legal historicism to bear on pressing questions of justice in the present day.”

As well as influencing her path to the legal academy, Gordon also influenced her scholarship.

“Most unusually for legal history, and especially promising for offering alternative paths to a just future, is I think his use of comparativism. … though with a very light touch. He weaves together the stories of the reconstruction of the U.S. after the Civil War as well as the 1960s, post-WWII Germany as well as post-Soviet Republics of the 1990s,” said Gross. “For me that was quite inspiring—to try to follow a model of comparativism, to look across time and geography to understand why certain narratives repeat themselves or don’t.”

Robert Weisberg, JD ’79, Edwin E. Huddleson, Jr. Professor of Law, talked about Gordon’s scholarship on the legal profession and “his insights into the model of the lawyer citizen,” noting that he had gotten to know Gordon’s father, Lincoln Gordon, who was a Harvard professor, the American ambassador to Brazil in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and the president of Johns Hopkins University in the late 1960s, and that offered some insights into Gordon’s scholarship.

Taming the Past: A Celebration of Bob Gordon’s Law and History Scholarship 1
Professor Robert Gordon

“I learned to appreciate something I didn’t have much academic knowledge of, and that is the heroic era of statesperson that Lincoln Gordon had been part of during and after the New Deal…,” he said. “And it struck me, as I got to know Bob better, that one reason his scholarship on that subject and others has been so great is that he, at least indirectly, was of that world, and yet had, of course, great critical perspective on it,” he says. Weisberg referenced a book review by Gordon of a book by Ben Heineman and David Wilkins about the revival of that model of lawyer. “It’s an interesting update, if you will, on the Gordon view of things. But what I found fascinating about the paper was that Bob tries, and succeeds, in being fairly critical about the claims being made there about the revival, but it shows something that has never gone away. And that while Bob is a kind of critical and an ironic anthropologist of law and the legal profession, he’s an idealist about it, and the idealism has never gone away, and it has really, I think, infused his teaching and his colleagueship.”

And while Gordon’s essays were the centerpiece of the celebration, his traits as a colleague were woven into every session.

“I had long been an admirer of Bob’s, if from afar, until I came to Stanford. But I had the pleasure of serving on several committees with him. And I know I share with you the wish that we could all have such a broad range of interests, which in Bob’s case is encyclopedic, and also be so generous with our knowledge,” said Magill.

Lawrence Friedman, Marion Rice Kirkwood Professor of Law, reinforces the idea of the “Bob as Google,” raised by many of the participants.  “I can’t remember the number of times a student has asked me something and I’ve said ‘why don’t you ask Bob Gordon—he’s certainly going to know.’ I don’t know if Bob appreciated those referrals, but I suspect I wasn’t alone in doing that.”

Fried recounted a story from Gordon’s first stint at Stanford Law School from 1983 to 1995, when their offices were in the same hallway.  “He would often wander into my office, sometimes two, three times a day. …with some witty observation about something that just happened, and then when he was halfway through it, he would look down at my desk from the other side and he would open up the many books that would be on it, and he would start to read from them and would skim them for, like two, three minutes, at the end of which he had the gist of all of them,” she said.  “Of course, I was slogging through them. … And then he would discourse on them elegantly and connect them to a million other things he knew.  The last point about this is that because he was on the far side of the desk, he was reading upside-down. …So, the mind boggles at how fast he must absorb things when he’s holding a book right-side up.”

Taming the Past: A Celebration of Bob Gordon’s Law and History Scholarship
Bobfest 2018

“He has been described as the kind of crit [critical legal studies scholar] you could take home to meet the family,” said Carol Rose, Yale and University of Arizona professor of law, emeritus. Referring to the book title and its cover, she added: “Why is this called Taming the Past?  What is that picture on the cover of Saint George with the dragon about?  Now, I have read a lot of Bob’s articles and essays over the years, but this is the first time I sat down and read through a whole bunch of them at once, and the overwhelming impression that I got from reading all of those things at once was that he doesn’t really think the past can be tamed so easily, if at all,” she said. “So, I think that might really be what it means to be the kind of crit you can take home to meet the family; that is, he gives you this picture of Saint George, but you have to pay attention to realize he’s really rooting for the dragon.”

Friedman shared a story about sending a book to colleagues for input before publication—and he received an anonymous reply. “I could tell after reading it who the author was. It was an incredible document. The erudition was amazing. And it was so sweet and gentle. The phrase constructive criticism is a stretch—it wasn’t constructive, it was kind. I said to my wife ‘it has to be Bob. No one else in the world could have written this.’”

That generosity and good spirit could be why, with over forty years in the academy, so many of Gordon’s former students are, as Friedman put it, “devoted to Bob.”

When at the end of the fête Gordon spoke, he first took time to react to each speaker’s comment—thanking them all. “I didn’t know quite what to expect from this event. I knew that I would be hideously embarrassed—and this is true. But it has been much more enjoyable than I had any reason to hope for. One of the main reasons for this is that you’re all old friends and you’re here talking in interesting and animated ways about the subjects that have been our lives’ passions,” he said.

Gordon also spoke of the influence others—many of them in the room—have had on him.

“It’s very funny for me to hear someone like Bill Simon, from whom I’ve learned everything I know about legal ethics, crediting me with some of his ideas. It’s ludicrous! And the same goes for many of you here.”

Nodding to Friedman, Gordon said: “Obviously, one of the principals in law and society scholarship, but also one of the principal theorists of the relation between law and society, and Lawrence’s work has been one of the major sources of inspiration for me.”

And Gordon even explained his ability to read text upside down as a skill he picked up during his early career as a reporter with the Louisville Courier-Journal and, later, Newsweek.

Concluding the gathering, Gordon harkened back to the muse for some of his key scholarship, the public lawyer of a bygone era that was a topic of much of the weekend’s discussion.

“Post-war, they didn’t think the government was evil, they didn’t think the bureaucrats were all crazy or stupid or anti-business, and some of them went into the profession with some sympathy for public service … When I went to law school, I assumed that all lawyers were like that. That’s why people went to law school—to join that kind of club of the high-minded, disinterested, public servants. Well, that was disillusioning.”

That ideal really came undone, he says, with the Vietnam War. “The shock of my disillusionment was accompanied by the sea of shock when this same group of high-minded public servants got lost in Vietnam. But it was a wound that spurred a creation. If people see in my work both disillusionment with liberal ideals and an earnest attempt to rebuild them, that’s the source,” he explained.

Transcripts of some of the proceedings and additional papers will be published, some in the Stanford Law Review and others in a new online imprint of the Law and History Review.