What do we want from the archives of the legal and literary past? Some of us go in search of origin stories or to piece together critical genealogies. Archeologies of knowledge and power. Histories of the present. Knowledge for cutting. Some of us are looking for lost ideas and forgotten practices that have become alien to us. Obsolescent ways of life. Experiments toward new ways that would never take hold for good. What could have been. And then there are those patient researchers for whom it is enough to reconstruct the past in its variety and complexity. They undertake an open-ended inquiry; their ethic is to remain “sensitive to historical contingency,” as Carl Ostrowski puts it in his new book, Literature and Criminal Justice in Antebellum America (13).

Ostrowski has made a substantial contribution to scholarship. For several decades, the cultural history...

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