Sir Henry Maine was a lawyer with a style, and belongs, by method and genius, among men of letters. The literary world looks askance upon a lawyer, and is slow to believe that the grim and formal matter of his studies can by any alchemy of style be transmuted into literature. Calfskin seems to it the most unlikely of all bindings to contain anything engaging to read. Lawyers, in their turn, are apt to associate the word “literature” almost exclusively with works of the imagination, and to think “style” a thing wholly misleading and unscientific. They demand plain business of their writers, and suspect a book that is pleasing of charlatanry. And yet a really great law writer will often make his way easily and at once into the ranks of men of letters. Blackstone’s Commentaries have been superseded and re- superseded, again and again, by all sorts of changes and restatements of the law of England, but they have lived serenely on through their century and more of assured vitality, and must still be read by every student of the law, in America no less than in England, because of their scope, their virility, their luminous meth- od, their easy combination of system with lucidity, their distinction of style, their quality as of the patriciate of letters. It does not seem to make any difference whether they are correct or not, and we return to them, after reading Bentham and Austin, their arch-critics, — a little shamefacedly, it may be, — to find our zest and relish for them not a whit abated. It is noteworthy that, though the profession has so thumbed and subsisted upon them, they were not written for the profession, but for the young gentlemen of England, whom the learned Vinerian professor wished to instruct in the institutions of their country. They are stripped as much as might be of technical phrase and detail, and are meant to stand in the general company of books, the servants and instructors of all comers. They are meant for the world, and seem instinctively to make themselves acceptable to it.
Sir Henry Maine, whether he was conscious of it or not, won his way to a like standing among men of letters by a like disposition and object. Without exception, I believe, his books were made up out of lectures delivered either to young law students, not yet masters of the technicalities of the law, or to lay audiences, to which professional erudition would have been unintelligible. He never seemed to stand inside the law, while he wrote, but outside; not explaining its interior mysteries, but setting its history round about it, — showing whence it came, whence it took its notions, its forms, its stringent sanctions, what its youth had been, and its growth, and why its maturity showed it come to so hard a fibre of formal doctrine. He viewed it always as something that the general life of man had brought forth, as a natural product of society; and his thought went round about society to compass its explanation. He moves, therefore, in a large region, where it is refreshing to be of his company, where wide prospects open with every comment, and you seem, as he talks, to be upon a tour of the world.