An enormous bookshelf covers one wall of Law professor Kermit Roosevelt’s office on the second floor of Penn’s Law School building, and more books litter the floor and are spread over his desk. On one shelf, the distinctive red and black spine adorns several copies of his most recent work, historical fiction novel “Allegiance."
Roosevelt is a study in contradictions. With a name that carries an association with not one, but two leaders of the free world, he comes across as much more suited to his current line of work. In fact, Roosevelt probably more closely resembles the students he teaches than anyone else on this particular day. The sides of his glasses’ frames are neon green and he sports a Penn squash T-shirt.
Perhaps also analogous to a few students’ apartments or dorm rooms, a shield adorned with the words “Winter is Coming” hangs on one wall. Roosevelt is a fan of the "Game of Thrones" book series more so than the shows. It’s appropriate considering his other contradiction: that with no English degree or formal training, he writes fiction.
Roosevelt’s roots in legal studies come across clearly in both of the fiction books that he’s published to date. He described his first book, “In the Shadow of the Law," as exploring the “nobility” of the legal profession. Roosevelt’s latest book, “Allegiance,” centers around a young man who has the opportunity to clerk at the Supreme Court, which Roosevelt also did shortly after he graduated from Yale Law School.
His latest novel takes place during World War II, when the constitutionality of detaining Japanese Americans was being called into question.
“What I was thinking about was post-9/11 national security measures, and in particular Guantanamo detentions,” Roosevelt said of the time frame when he began researching for the book in 2007.
Roosevelt said he saw parallels between the events unfolding after 9/11 to what happened after Pearl Harbor. “There was a similar sense of fear, a similar overreaction, I think, in the name of national security,” he said, adding that in both periods of history, “You get these crazy situations where the government is trying to sort the dangerous people from the not dangerous people, which it doesn’t do very well.”
A novel might not seem to be the most intuitive way for Roosevelt to get this point across, but he has a different way of looking at it.
“You can write law review articles saying we overreacted in a counterproductive way after Sept. 11,” he said. “But a limited number of people read those. So, I was really hoping that I could present the same issues in a more entertaining and accessible way so people … will come away with a slightly different perspective.”
Even with the connection between the fiction he writes and his background in law made clear, it still seems odd that Roosevelt, with an undergraduate degree in philosophy and a graduate degree from law school under his belt, would moonlight in creative writing. Indeed, especially in “Allegiance," the prose is almost lyrical — and that’s exactly what he was going for.
“[Allegiance] is supposed to be sort of like 'War and Remembrance' or 'The Winds of War,' written by a guy called Herman Wouk. But I wanted to do it in a more lyrical style, a style more like 'All the King’s Men,'” he said.
Roosevelt said he’s been writing creatively since high school, generally semi-autobiographically. “I liked it because it was a way of looking for meaning in my life and in life generally, and also a way of creating meaning or giving artistic structure to things that happened,” he said. The autobiographical aspect comes across in his work even now, with parallels between Roosevelt and his protagonists. The protagonist in “Allegiance” is from Philadelphia, partially because it’s where Roosevelt now lives.
Roosevelt will read from ”Allegiance” and sign copies at the Penn Bookstore on Oct. 7.
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