The Backbone of the Herring, by Curtis Bok (1941)

Cover of first US edition of 'The backbone of the Herring'“It has been said that a judge is a member of the Bar who once knew a Governor,” Curtis Bok quips in the first story in his collection of judicial stories, The Backbone of the Herring. With this opening line, the reader immediately gets a sense of Bok’s easy-going humor and self-deprecation. Although John Lukacs once described Bok’s personality as “glacial”–which it may well have been in public–as a writer, channeled through his fictional identity as “Judge Ulen” in these stories, Bok comes across as the kind of judge you’d want to have hearing your case–whether as plaintiff or defendant: conscientious, empathetic, impartial, and capable taking or making a joke once in a while.

Lukacs’ assessment might stem from Bok’s position on the highest tier of Philadelphia society. His father, Edward Bok was editor of The Saturday Evening Post and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and his mother, Mary Louise Curtis, brought a fortune and her husband’s access to his editorship courtesy of her father, Cyrus Curtis, who founded the Post along with a half-dozen of the other leading American magazines of the time. She herself founded the Curtis Institute of Music, considered the toughest American conservatory to get into, and somewhat shocked Philadelphia when, a widow of 67, she married the violinist and bon vivant Efrem Zimbalist (Senior). And, not to stunt the family tree, Curtis’ son, Derek grew up to become president of Harvard.

On the other hand, for a son of the Main Line, Curtis showed a remarkable capacity for choosing his own path. After a tour in the Navy during World War One, he studied law at the University of Virginia and became a member of a prestigious Philadelphia firm. He won a place on the cover of Time magazine in 1933 when he turned down the chance to run the family publishing company and, instead, kept his low-paying job as an assistant district attorney. Despite his time in the military, he was a practicing Quaker and a lifelong opponent of the death penalty.

Time magazine cover from July 1933 featuring Curtis Bok
In 1937, he became President Judge of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, the city’s primary civil and criminal court. Early on, he began keeping a notebook of his observations from the courtroom–not so much to aid in writing his opinions as to help shape his understanding of the nature of justice, and these developed into fictional sketches that he began publishing in The Shingle, the magazine of the Philadelphia Bar Association in 1939. These stories are collected in The Backbone of the Herring

“These are not entirely autobiographical or fictitious, nor is Ulen,” Bok writes in his foreword. His point in recounting these stories was “that our system of justice, apart from Justice, which will remain undefined so far as I am concerned, can be made to work when applied with art and sympathy and a sly sense of humor.” Describing himself as a “mediocre lawyer with good connections,” Ulen took some time to overcome his timidity and found, somewhat to his surprise, that “when at last he had drifted to a point of rest he came rather abruptly into his full powers and began to use them with a delight.”

Although Ulen’s reflections on justice (“Justice has to do with the play of an enlightened personality within the boundaries of a system”) are a constant motif, the real interest of these stories is in Bok/Ulen’s observations of people. One defendant, a hulking laborer, is “the kind of man who puts his hands on his hips to think.” A large woman at the end of a difficult day collapses into a chair “like an exhausted avalanche.” A wife leaves her husband not because he beat her, cheated, or “was actively unkind: he simply lived as though he had been cored out and had nothing with which to respond.” Of another left man, Bok writes that, “No one thought to educate him in the art of getting on with his fellow man: this knowledge is supposed to grow on trees.”

His survey of human relations includes his own. When his friend, Henry Fielder, newly elected as Governor, offers him a post on the bench, the little dance Bok describes is something you often witness in male interactions:

Gosh, said Ulen to himself, this is serious. He was an introvert and Henry was an extrovert, and they were very shy of sentiment. The one feared a rebuff and the other was afraid of falling in a swamp. It was an impasse of language, for each of them was continually delighted by what the other did and bothered by what he said. Fielder called the thing he saw a spade. Ulen preferred to call it nothing, on the chance it might turn into something else of make a reasonable answer. The result was that when they were together they spent a great deal of time looking at their own feet and thinking what a wonderful fellow the other was in his own way.

On the other hand, Bok/Ulen is clearly operating in unfamiliar territory in those sketches where he ventures out of the courtroom, and positively lost when he tries to imagine what people do and say when he is not there. In “Artema’s Story,” about a failed romance that ultimately winds up on his docket, he expects the reader to believe that any woman would say the following to her lover: “We must lie greatly or not at all. To me this evening was a natural as walking in the city and suddenly seeing the hills. Maybe we stop being prisoners only when we don’t care whether the gates are open or shut. I may never know that with lucidity, but you will when the time comes.” Perhaps she was talking to Master Thespian. Fortunately, these potholes are few and easy to veer around.

Bok spent over twenty years in charge of the Court of Common Pleas, and wrote several well-regarded law texts, along with a few influential opinions. In his most famous, throwing out obscenity charges against a Philadelphia bookseller who was offering works by such smut-mongers as William Faulkner and James T. Farrell, he wrote that “It will be asked whether one would care to have one’s young daughter read these books.” The worst that might happen, in Bok’s view, was that “they will learn what is in the world and in its people, and no parents who have been discerning with their children need fear the outcome. Nor can they hold it back, for life is a series of little battles and minor issues, and the burden of choice is on us all, every day, young and old.”

He also wrote a sequel to The Backbone of the Herring, I, Too, Nicodemus (1946), which collected further “judicial adventures” of Judge Ulen. He also wrote two novels: Star Wormwood (1959), written as an illustration of the moral harm of the death penalty, and Maria (1962), a romance set on his beloved coast of Maine and published posthumously. Bok was appointed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1958 and served there until his death in 1962.

The title of The Backbone of the Herring, by the way, comes from a judicial oath used on the Isle of Man centuries ago: “You swear to do justice between cause and cause as equally as the backbone of the herring doth lie midmost of the fish.” The dust jacket design is by renowned graphic designer W. A. Dwiggins, who provided Knopf with some of its best covers of the 1930s and 1940s.


The Backbone of the Herring, by Curtis Bok,br>
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1941

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