Modernism and the Meaning of Corporate Persons, by Lisa Siraganian. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020. 288 pages.
When lawyers speak of legal fictions, they don't mean novels like To Kill a Mockingbird or Bleak House but, rather, assumptions that they know are made-up--even untrue. One law school offers this crisp, if paradoxical, explanation: a legal fiction is "a fictitious fact that is treated as true under the law for purposes of legal, administrative or other expediency" (WashULaw 2012). The law, in other words, relies on fictions to do its work. One particular legal fiction, corporate personhood, has gotten considerable attention since 2010, when Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission extended the free speech rights of corporations, thereby allowing them to pour money into elections. While the decision outraged many (and understandably so), the Roberts Court did not bestow a constitutional right to corporations out of thin air. Well over a century earlier, Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company (1886) established that corporations are persons under the terms of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and subsequent decisions have long since established various precedents for their speech rights.
Corporate personhood is, of course, a metaphor as well as a legal fiction, and a highly consequential one. The implications of treating a corporation as if it were a person are incalculable. As both figure of speech and imaginative construct, corporate personhood provides literary scholars with a particularly inviting way to think through legal and economic questions.
Lisa Siraganian's elegant Modernism and the Meaning of Corporate Persons makes the case that corporate personhood is integral to American modernism. In five tightly written chapters, Siraganian ranges across canonical figures (such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and Ralph Ellison); other well-known writers rarely associated with modernism (such as Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, and George Schuyler); and a fascinating group of less familiar authors (including poet and lawyer Charles Reznikoff). A coda, presented in the form of a legal brief on behalf of American literature, touches on recent literary forays into corporate personhood by Richard Powers, Jena Osman, and George Saunders. While the readings of fiction and poetry are uniformly incisive, what makes Modernism and the Meaning of Corporate Personhood so rewarding is Siraganian's deep knowledge of the law. (In fact, she earned a JD while working on this book.) She draws from no fewer than eighty court cases--giving some of them detailed and penetrating close readings of their own--and provides extended discussion of important legal writers such as Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., law professor Maurice Wormser, and pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, whose 1926 essay on corporate personhood remains a classic (Dewey 1926).
Modernism and the Meaning of Corporate Personhood is a volume in Oxford University Press's distinguished Law and Literature series. As an interdisciplinary project, the book is exemplary, though less concerned with capitalism than one might expect. That is, while Siraganian has plenty to say about the fraught question of what constitutes corporate speech and other legally...