For Bob Gordon.

Author:Witt, John Fabian
Position:Symposium on Robert W. Gordon's 'Taming the Past: Essays on Law in History and History in Law'

I'm thrilled to be able to be part of this celebration of the man I think we should all start calling the Notorious RWG.

I first encountered Bob Gordon-or rather, I first encountered his work--in 1994. (1) was on a gap year between college and law school, working in the appeals bureau of Robert Morgenthau's Manhattan District Attorney's Office and applying to a history PhD. program. The office had a law library, complete with all the major law reviews. I decided that during my lunch hours I would read legal history in the law reviews so that I'd be at least a little bit ready for the J.D./Ph.D. program on which I had decided to embark.

I paged through the big volumes, the way one used to in the Stone Age, looking for interesting articles. When I found one, I mined the footnotes for citations to others. In the law reviews that year, I met many of you who are here at this conference today: Willy Forbath, Tom Grey, Dirk Hartog, Laura Kalman, David Rabban, John Henry Schlegel, and others. I read some books, too: both volumes of Morton Horwitz's The Transformation of American Law and Lawrence Friedman's big books.

In the middle of my reading I encountered two of Bob's essays: Historicism in Legal Scholarship (2) and Critical Legal Histories, (3) These were different, or at least they seemed so. They were methods articles. And so I copied them, on the office copy machine, putting them onto long, legal-sized eight-and-a-half-by fourteen-inch copy paper.

I took them home to a tiny Brooklyn studio apartment and devoured them, using a yellow highlighter and a red pen instead of a fork and knife. I was hardly a good judge of their quality. What did I know!? But I found them magical, as if they held the keys to a secret kingdom I knew little about. They were erudite and never pompous; they were smart and never dull. Important things seemed to be at stake, but they were never self-righteous.

For the next decade I carried the marked-up copies of these two articles around with me, through every apartment and grad school crash pad. They became ratty and dog-eared. One year back in Brooklyn they fell victim to a flood that smudged the red pen and mixed it with the yellow highlighter, resulting in big orange splotches alternating with some kind of powerful mold! For a week, drying pages of Critical Legal Histories populated every available space.

Most of all, I carried the now nearly destroyed articles back to New Haven as a student, where lo and behold my good fortune: This Bob Gordon fellow had just joined the faculty! And not just him. In a short number of years, Yale had hired John Langbein, Reva Siegel, and James Whitman, too. It was a cohort that produced an extraordinary number of proteges in a relatively short period.

In the Yale group assembled in the 1990s, Bob was my principal mentor, though I was lucky to get to work with all four of the main figures. Working with Bob shapes my engagement in the field to this day in almost every respect, from the ideas I produce to the classes I teach, from the students I advise to the colleagues with whom I work. I've long thought that anything good in what I've written is attributable to the influence of David Brion Davis, who was my undergraduate advisor, and to Bob. I guess you could say that the drying pages of Critical Legal Histories still populate virtually every surface of my professional life.

One lesson I learned from Bob comes back to me with particular frequency It is a fact of life that even the best scholarship fails. Sometimes failure is more readily apparent in brilliant scholarship than in mediocre scholarship; the limits of the former can be all the more visible. Indeed, human reason doesn't yet seem capable of completely solving the knottiest problems of the humanities and the social sciences. That's probably for the best; it keeps things interesting. And let's face it-most work, certainly most of my work, is not operating anywhere close to the frontiers of brilliance. The scholarship we read and write is dreadfully flawed and partial.

I learned from Bob, however, to read with optimism-to read for what's good in a work rather than for what's bad. Most of our partial and limited efforts to account for meaning in the human experience have some value in them. There are things to be learned, ideas to be sparked in even...

To continue reading