Robert St. George
Andrew W. Mellon Penn Faculty Fellow in the Humanities
2002—2003 Forum on The Book
Robert St. George
Associate Professor, History
The Spoken Book: Early American Lawyers and their Reading
Legal books were a source of oral performance as well as repositories of accumulated knowledge. Central in Dr. St. George's work is 18th century lawyers' "spoken books." In what ways did early American lawyers, as a nascent professional group, rely upon reading aloud in public as a means of consolidating occupational authority and making their claims to discovery of "legal truth" convincing as oral performance? The first step towards occupational professionalism occurred with Boston attorney Jeremiah Gridley's establishment of Sodalitas in 1765. This polite discussion club for younger local lawyers included the likes of Oxenbridge Thatcher, Benjamin Pratt, William Cushing, James Otis, Josiah Quincy, and John Adams. Detailed documentary and empirical evidence of Sodalitas members' books, marginalia, and court jottings reveal the performative use of books in court. Determining the general reading patterns of these early American attorneys, aside from legal texts, also informs a reconstruction of court performances. Dr. St. George recognizes that the extemporaneous languages of the pulpit, stage, and classical orator contained within non-legal texts were instrumental in shaping new styles of speech and gestures in courtroom settings. As it anchored the new paradigm of legal discourse in the private library and the archive of legal precedents it constitute, and as it articulated rather than masked the disappearing voice of the lawyer, the spoken book added a new semiotic force to the "trade in talk" of Sodalitas members in Boston's early legal community.