2008 gifts: a Blackstone with a back-story

January 26, 2009

Our books often have interesting stories behind them. One example is the fine set of Blackstone’s Commentaries (4 vols.; London, 1830) recently donated  by Mr. Mordecai K. Rosenfeld (Yale Law Class of 1954).

Mr. Rosenfeld is known for the witty and insightful essays he wrote for the New York Law Journal beginning in 1979. The story of our Blackstone begins when a collection of his essays was published in 1988 by the University of Georgia Press, under the title The Lament of the Single Practitioner: Essays on the Law. Here’s how Mr. Rosenfeld told the story in a 1990 essay, “Time to Answer”:

“The book … received, I am happy to say, much praise, but I shall recount only one instance, the praise that it received in an essay written for the Times (of London) Literary Supplement by a Mr. Eric Korn… I was so touched that my book would be mentioned in the TLS … that I wrote a note to thank the author. The note was written, of course, on my office stationery, and that, as we shall see, was my undoing.
     “A few days later I received a response from London. Mr. Korn wrote to me and asked if, perchance, I knew of a lawyer in New York who might help him with a legal problem. Not being able to say that I knew no one, I wrote back offering to undertake the task myself, whatever it was. The only condition I imposed was that I would not, under any circumstances, accept a fee.
     “My offer was promptly accepted. Mr. Korn, it seemed was not only an essayist but also an antiquarian book dealer. His book store … had participated in an Antiquarian Book Fair in New York and had sold a fine rare book to an apparently prosperous lady for $1,350. The apparently prosperous lady paid with two checks … on both of which she stopped payment as soon as Mr. Korn had left New York to return home. In accepting the case, I assumed that if I wrote a lawyer letter, payment would be prompt…”

However, collecting the payment turned out to be not so simple for Mr. Rosenfeld. He was obliged to sue in small-claims court, where he had never litigated. In “Time to Answer”, he recounts his embarrassment as he made several false starts. When he was finally ready to collect a default judgment, he had to ask the bank’s attorney, again, for guidance:

“He couldn’t believe that I didn’t know what had to be done, and inquired again if I was really a lawyer. When I assured him that I was, he asked which law school I had graduated from, but I was ashamed to tell him because my particular law school, Yale, takes inordinate (but undeserved) pride in the intellectual abilities of its graduates, and so I told him that, frankly, I couldn’t remember. Said Mr. Mancuso, ‘Mr. Rosenfeld, I’m not surprised.’”

The full story of Mr. Rosenfeld’s initiation into small-claims litigation is in “Time to Answer,” published in A Backhanded View of the Law: Irreverent Essays on Justice (Woodbridge, CT: Ox Bow Press, 1992). But the essay does not mention that Mr. Korn, in lieu of a fee, sent Mr. Rosenfeld the London 1830 edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries as a token of his gratitude. This is the set that Mr. Rosenfeld donated to the Lillian Goldman Law Library in October 2008. A few weeks later, I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Korn at the Boston Antiquarian Book Fair. He retains a high opinion of Mr. Rosenfeld’s legal abilities.

The 1830 Commentaries is a lovely set, still in its original boards and with the pages untrimmed. Our thanks to Mordecai Rosenfeld for this very welcome addition to our William Blackstone Collection, the world’s most comprehensive collection of Blackstone.

And for your reading pleasure, I highy recommend Mr. Rosenfeld’s essays in Lament of the Single Practitioner and Backhanded View of the Law, described by Eric Korn as “beautifully adept jabs at legal idiocies.”

Rare Book Librarian

Published In: