The Folklore of Legal Biography

Spencer Weber Waller’s Thurman Arnold: A Biography faces the problem of making this life stand out, and this Review seeks both to evaluate his rendering-which it does in Part II, after providing more details of the raw materials of Arnold’s life in Part I-and to use Arnold’s ideas to reflect on the endeavor of the legal biography. Although other works bearing on Arnold’s life have been available,’ Waller’s competent, readable chronicle will provide an authoritative source of information and satisfy the desires of general readers interested in accomplished legal lives and seeking a straightforward account of Arnold’s career. But Waller’s book will also dissatisfy legal academics and historians, as well as general readers who want a more in-depth treatment of the man and his work. It does not develop and shape the raw materials of Arnold’s life into a meaningful whole; nor does it fully connect Arnold’s professional career over the final three decades of his life with the academic works that enabled his permanent move to the heights of legal practice in the federal government and private practice. The book falls short, ultimately, in making the case for why Arnold’s career, unlike that of the vast majority of thoughtful, accomplished attorneys, deserves biographical treatment. The highlights of an excellent legal career are well-described in the book; absent, though, is a sense of Arnold as a person and of his place within the broader historical period in which he lived and worked. Part III identifies and briefly explores an irony underlying any attempt to offer a biography of Thurman Arnold. Arnold’s academic and popular writings during the 1930s-which not only critiqued what he saw as the foolishness and ill effects of legal formalism and political conservatism, but also recognized the symbolic authority of legal forms and conservative beliefs and the need for any reform movement to respect and appropriate them-force us to reconsider the entire project of “legal biography.” Arnold’s life and work reveal the ways in which the forces of modernity-forces that Arnold celebrated in his work and helped unleash in the New Deal and at Arnold & Porter-call into question the “rugged individual” that biography requires. Arnold’s critical realist project sought to uncover the historically contingent and ideological nature of the classical liberal conception of the subject who authors his own individual life; but at the same time, the culturalist side of Arnold’s work explains why this conception remains necessary, given the symbolic nature of a legal system and the deeply felt needs we have in residual concepts like the historically transcendent individual.