The Most Important Books to Randall Kennedy

By Alfred Brophy

The current issue of Newsweek features Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy. It talks about the five most important books to him. Pretty intriguing list. Professor Kennedy writes:

1. “The American Political Tradition” by Richard Hofstadter. It ignited my interest in history.

2. “Black Boy” by Richard Wright. It indelibly imprinted on me the horrors my grandparents and parents faced as blacks in the pre-civil-rights Deep South.

3. “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877” by Eric Foner. A magnificent scholarly edifice.

4. “Our Undemocratic Constitution” by Sanford Levinson. A fearless examination of the Constitution by one of the most adventurous (and overlooked) U.S. intellectuals.

5. “Four Quartets” by T. S. Eliot. Because it contains the poem “East Coker,” in which one finds the lines: “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”

As I say, it’s an intriguing list. I need to think about what would be on my top five–perhaps we’d overlap in Foner’s Reconstruction–a brilliant and sweeping book. When I first read it I couldn’t even begin to imagine how one person could have the knowledge to write such a comprehensive book.

I’d probably include C. Vann Woodward’s Strange Career of Jim Crow and Morton Horwitz’ Transformation of American Law, 1780-1860 and maybe G. Edward White’s Marshall Court and Cultural Change, because it gave me a sense of how to combine cultural and intellectual history with legal thought. Wright’s Black Boy is a fabulous volume, of course; but for me Ellison’s Invisible Man was more influential, because it lead me to understand the response of African American intellectuals to Jim Crow. And it’s the source of the title of one of my current projects, “The Great Constitutional Dream Book.” Really small tidbits are here and here. And there’s some more in the first chapter of Reconstructing the Dreamland.

If we’re talking about articles and essays that have influenced us, I would add Kennedy’s “Race Relations Law and the Tradition of Celebration: The Case of Professor Schmidt,” which appeared in the Columbia Law Review back in 1986.

Alfred Brophy

One response to “The Most Important Books to Randall Kennedy

  1. Although I agree that Ellison’s “Invisible Man” should be on every list, canonical or otherwise, I also find both lists intriguing and telling, particularly because there are no women on either list. For example, “Southern Horrors and Other Writings” by Ida B. Wells, which taught me that African American women are strong for reason’s often rebuffed by black men; “The Street” by Anne Petry, which proves that my life I lived in the 1970s and 80s was lived by sisters in the 1940s and 50s–we share a struggle; or the classic, “A Voice from the South by Anna Julia Cooper,” which lets me know that African Americans in general, and black women in particular, are valueable.

    Happy reading:-)

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