VIEWS: 13 PAGES: 4 CATEGORY: Humanities POSTED ON: 6/3/2010
[...] it appears that what Ferguson has in mind by the term "American life" is the enduring artifacts of culture-photographs, such as Mary Surratt on the gallows after being convicted on dubious grounds of conspiring to assassinate President Lincoln; novels, such as E. L. Doctorow's 1971 The Book of Daniel, in which a fictional counternarrative to the story of the Rosenberg trial is told through the eyes of one of their children; and song, such as "John Brown's Body." [...] Ferguson's accounts of the exceptional trials reinforce the ways that prevailing cultural conditions influence the officers of the court responsible for presenting jurors with evidence, argument, and instruction.
682 RhetoRic & Public AffAiRs desire to repair the wounds created by this event for the credibility of America’s traditional narrative of “Victory Culture.” Now, as the War on Terror drags on, shaped in part by the catalytic effects of U.S. hypocrisy in preempting interna- tional nuclear proliferation while failing to abolish its own obsolete and dan- gerous nuclear arsenal, we should consider how this “wisdom” is taken up as a resource for other debates in other settings. Bryan C. Taylor University of Colorado, Boulder The Trial in American Life. By Robert A. Ferguson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007; pp. ix + 400. $29.00. In this highly readable study, Robert Ferguson offers critical analysis of the rhetoric of criminal trials in American culture from the earliest days of the republic, starting with the trial of Aaron Burr, through the late 20th cen- tury, including the 1990s trials of O. J. Simpson, Louise Woodward, and Joel Steinberg. Ferguson traces the roots of the arguments made in court to the historical moment in which the trials are held, and also observes the impact of the trials on contemporary American popular and literary culture. His aim is to draw attention to three dimensions of criminal trials that attract widespread attention through journalism and political debate: (1) a spread of conflict, (2) surprise or a turn of events, and (3) iconography. Ferguson’s analysis is focused on six landmark trials, each of which illustrates his three dimensions vividly. For example, he first discusses the 1926 “Scopes Monkey Trial,” in which all three dimensions seemed to be at work simultane- ously. The conflict over teaching evolution, which continues to this day, is seen to have spread widely enough across the United States that a trial in Dayton, Tennessee, became the object of national attention. Prominent journalists such as H. L. Mencken attended and offered commentary on the trial, which tran- scended the plain matter of whether John Scopes violated state law by teaching evolution in his elementary school classroom, which he clearly did. Instead, the trial came to represent the conflicts between modernity and tradition, reli- gion and science, and the regional cultures of the southeas
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