UofT Law faculty authors: 

Simon Stern, "Biographical Evidence and the Law of Presumptions,' J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists 9:1 (2021) 83 https://muse.jhu.edu/article/790342


The rules and history of evidence law can provide useful resources for understanding the role of biographical evidence in literary criticism. During the nineteenth century, as evidence law became increasingly formalized, presumptions acquired a newfound significance as a device for allocating the burden of proof in evidentiary disputes. Presumptions generally operate by stipulating a legal conclusion that flows from a certain factual premise, such that the conclusion remains dispositive unless the opposing party offers witnesses or documents that contradict it. The result is a burden-shifting procedure that licenses a generic inference, assumed to flow from a factual premise but capable of being rebutted by specific details to the contrary. Literary critics often use biographical evidence in a similar fashion: in the absence of concrete information about a writer's beliefs or experiences, critics use some kinds of generic biographical information to draw inferences about the attitudes that someone with a certain background would have held. When more specific biographical details become available, they are used to confirm, refine, or contradict those inferences. Unlike lawyers, however, literary critics tend to use biographical information of all kinds—both generic and specific—to raise new inferences rather than to resolve questions definitively.