September 23, 2007
Talking with the Corporate Law Professor About Fantasy Novels
Posted by Harwell Wells

As blog-savvy readers know, some corporate law professors are big fans of fantasy novels. And I confess, I too have a weakness a few  books in the genre.

But how many readers know that a corporate law professor wrote a classic of fantasy literature?

The professor was Austin Tappan Wright; the book, Islandia. Wright, who was born in 1883 and was killed in a car accident in 1931, was a graduate of Harvard Law (his father had been dean of the graduate school at Harvard), and worked for Brandeis's law firm before moving on to teach corporation, partnership, and maritime law, first at Berkeley and then at Penn.  From the obituaries that appeared at the time of his death, he appeared to be a well-liked teacher and solid scholar, but there was little to suggest that his work would be read seventy years later.

After his death, however, his wife found in his papers a handwritten, 2300-page novel: Islandia, which was published (to rave reviews) in an edited, 1000-page edition in 1942.   According to his daughter, Wright's family knew he had been working on an account of Islandia, but few outside the family did.   Islandia is an account of the nation of Islandia (which, as we all know, is located in the southern hemisphere at the tip of the Karain continent).  The novel, set in the early years of the twentieth century, tells of John Lang, the new American counsel to long-isolated Islandia (kind of like a pre-Perry Japan), and his attempts to open it up for trade with the rest of the world, even as he slowly falls in love with the land and begins to doubt his modernizing mission. On publication, Islandia was hailed as a classic, and many readers claimed it changed their lives; a quick look at reviews posted at Amazon shows that some readers still recall it as “life altering” and “breathtaking” (among those praising it is the fantasy novelist Vonda McIntyre). Although the novel doesn't include all of the trappings of fantasy novels -- no dragons or wizards -- I think its imaginary setting qualifies it as a fantasy.

At this point, I have to confess to a problem: I was originally going to blog about Islandia and speculate lightly on the oddity of a corporate law professor spending his idle hours writing a huge fantasy novel. But when I picked up the novel again (I read some of it as a teenager), I found it hard going. Wright’s prose is wooden, the characters are not especially interesting, the novel reflects the prejudices of its day (Wright needs to tell his readers, repeatedly, that the Islandians are “Caucasian"), and the romance scenes, and there are several, read as though they're written by, well, a corporate law professor born in 1883.  It's by no means a terrible book, and some of the world-building is interesting, but neither is it particularly good, and life’s too short to read a 1000-page novel you're not enjoying.  So I quit after 200 pages.  After reading part of the book I can kind of understand why readers in the 1940s would have embraced Wright’s picture of a civilized but pre-industrial South Seas utopia, but I certainly can’t recommend the book as a good read to anyone in the twenty-first century.

But, having given up on Islandia, I still wonder about Austin Wright, a productive law scholar popular with colleagues and students, married and with four children, scribbling away in whatever free moments he had (between classes? late at night?), producing a 600,000 word novel before age fifty. His thoroughness was astonishing; according to his daughter's afterwards to the novel, not only did Wright write Islandia itself, he produced, with detail reminiscent of Tolkien, appendices for the novel that included a glossary of the Islandian language, tables of population, a complete historic peerage, and even a "gazetteer of the provinces with a history of each" (all were cut from the published work). Was Islandia strictly a private entertainment? Was he ever planning to publish it?  Wright wasn't the only writer in the past century who lived an outwardly dutiful life yet labored in private to create a richly realized alternative world (again, think Tolkien), but his split life still strikes me as extraordinary.

Or have I underestimated what people are doing in their spare time? Are there more fantasy manuscripts tucked in law professors' desk drawers?

Note: After finishing this post, I remembered that there is at least one other law professor who has written a fantasy novel.

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