The Prosser Letters: 1917-1948
44 Pages Posted: 31 Mar 2015 Last revised: 2 Apr 2016
Date Written: March 27, 2015
William Prosser was one of the most accomplished and influential scholars of the twentieth century. He molded the development of tort doctrine, especially in the areas of products liability, privacy, and the intentional infliction of emotional distress. In spite of his numerous achievements, there is no full-length biography of Prosser. A major reason no one has written such a volume is the lack of Prosser’s papers. Based on information from a Berkeley Law librarian, it appears Prosser destroyed most of his papers in 1963. Recently, however, prominent academics have both written shorter biographical pieces on Prosser and called for further research on his life.
Progress is possible thanks to the serendipitous discovery of a pile of Prosser’s old letters at a garage sale in the Berkeley area. The letters begin when the twenty-one-year-old Prosser is in Europe after fighting in World War I and continue through Prosser’s role as a visiting professor at Harvard Law School in 1948. They provide a first-hand account from Prosser during crucial periods of his life.
This essay is based on a review of those letters. It accomplishes three main things. First, it fills in considerable details of Prosser’s life, including the resolution of several contested issues, such as where Prosser spent his childhood and when he matriculated as a 1L at Harvard Law School. Second, the essay provides a first-hand account of Prosser’s pedagogical experience in law school and how that affected his teaching, his struggle with the decision to become an academic, and his candid appraisal of the academy. Third, the essay reveals Prosser’s assessment of his own honesty, which is especially provocative in light of the controversy surrounding his methods for influencing the law.
Keywords: torts, legal history, William Prosser
JEL Classification: K00, K13, K39
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation