The Fertile Intersection of Literature and Law: Julie Peters '77

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Julie Peters ’77 combines both fields in her academic career

“Writing is like exercise: if you haven’t done it for a while, it can seem impossible, but the more you do it, the better shape you’re in.”

Julie Peters ’77, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, knows of what she speaks. Her extensive list of publications includes Theatre of the Book 1480–1880: Print, Text, and Performance in Europe, which explores the role of the printing press in the birth of modern theater, and Women’s Rights, Human Rights: International Feminist Perspectives, about the link between gender inequality, violence, and human rights.

An expert in early modern comparative drama and the literary and cultural dimensions of the law, Julie earned an A.B. from Yale and a Ph.D. from Princeton. She completed her law degree at Columbia and has served there in positions that include chair of the theatre PhD program and founding director of the Columbia College Human Rights Program. Her many honors include a Guggenheim, a Fulbright, and an NEH fellowship.

Julie attributes her early and deep-seated love of literature, sense of language, and writing ability to her mother, writer Sandra Stone. She says her father, Mel, has the kind of energy, efficiency, clarity of purpose, and joie de vivre that taught her to see anything as possible. “Both my parents urged me to think about how I could make the world a better place and to believe that I could make a difference,” she says.

She was thus led to literature and law. “Literary interpretation came naturally to me, but I was fascinated by law,” she says. After law school she did pro bono work and started the human rights program at Columbia. “Even if I wasn’t directly in the fray I could inspire others to fight the good fight,” she says. “At the same time, I do feel that close reading and thoughtful writing are among the most practical skills one can have.”

She reflects fondly on her time at Catlin Gabel, where teachers such as Schauff, Dudley Hunt, and Dave Corkran communicated so vividly their love of teaching: “What always seemed to matter most was that learning be a great, exciting adventure.”

Next steps for Julie involve moving to Harvard University in the fall, where she will help build a theatre curriculum and participate in the vibrant human rights program. She will continue to write, completing manuscripts on the modern origins of world performance and the theatricality of law. She’s not content to stop there, however: “I have lots of book ideas. I’d like to write one on humanitarianism and popular culture, for instance. And a short history of the idea of the human. And, and, and. . . .”