Robert Spoo is the Leonard L. Milberg ’53 Professor in Irish Letters at Princeton University. Previously, he was the Chapman Distinguished Professor of Law and Professor of English at the University of Tulsa, where he edited and (later) co-edited the James Joyce Quarterly. He earned his BA in English at Lawrence University and his MA and PhD in English at Princeton, where he held a Whiting Fellowship in the Humanities and later taught as a Lecturer. He received his JD from Yale Law School; after graduating, he served as judicial clerk to the Honorable Sonia Sotomayor when she was a member of the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
Spoo’s research and teaching merge interdisciplinary interests in literature, law, and theories of intellectual property and the public domain. His writing focuses on modern Irish figures, notably James Joyce and Oscar Wilde, and he is actively involved in the law-and-literature movement within modernist studies. Pairing his academic career with work as a practicing lawyer, he has assisted scholars, writers, and creative artists with the challenges of copyright and fair use and served as co-counsel in a groundbreaking lawsuit to free scholars from unwarranted copyright threats by the Estate of James Joyce.
His first book, James Joyce and the Language of History: Dedalus’s Nightmare (Oxford University Press, 1994), examined historiographic narrative in Joyce’s writings, emphasizing the ideas of history that shaped his thought and inspired a fierce, playful resistance in his fictions. Drawing on Vico, Nietzsche, and other figures, the book finds in Ulysses a metahistorical project comparable to the ethical aesthetics that Hayden White identified in history writing.
Spoo’s later research has combined literary and legal history with theories of intellectual property and the public domain (or the commons). His book Without Copyrights: Piracy, Publishing, and the Public Domain (Oxford University Press, 2013) shows how lawful piracy and informal publishing norms impacted authors, from Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde to James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Spoo’s Modernism and the Law (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018) expands this canvas to explore copyright, commons, patronage, blackmail, defamation, obscenity, and privacy in shaping transatlantic modern literature, authorship, and publishing. Spoo’s interdisciplinary work has appeared in many collections and journals, including the Yale Law Journal, Stanford Law Review, UCLA Law Review, ELH, Journal of Modern Literature, James Joyce Quarterly, Joyce Studies Annual, Law & Literature, Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal, and Modernism/modernity Print Plus.
Spoo’s archival and editorial interests have drawn him to unpublished epistolary and creative writings by Joyce, Ezra Pound, and H.D. (Hilda Doolittle). In 2021, he published James Joyce’s Letters to Ezra Pound: Alliances, Patronage, and Gifting in James Joyce’s Correspondence, an open-access project at University of Antwerp that he helped found for navigating global copyright laws and making Joyce’s letters freely available in all public-domain countries. This collection of 87 previously unpublished letters of Joyce to Pound is richly annotated, with an introduction placing the writers’ relationship in historical, economic, and temperamental contexts.
With Omar Pound, Spoo published Ezra Pound and Margaret Cravens: A Tragic Friendship, 1910-1912 (Duke University Press, 1988) and Ezra and Dorothy Pound: Letters in Captivity, 1945-1946 (Oxford University Press, 1999) . The first volume employs letters and other documents to excavate the collaboration of the young poet and his first patron, Margaret Cravens, a talented American woman of the right bank. The second volume gathers letters of Pound and his wife Dorothy following his arrest in Italy for allegedly treasonous broadcasts in support of Mussolini and fascism during World War II. The volume employs letters and military, legal, and FBI documents to trace Pound’s journey from arrest to eventual confinement in a mental ward in Washington DC—the period during which he composed his Pisan Cantos and produced English translations of Confucian texts.
Spoo edited and annotated Asphodel (Duke University Press, 1992), an unpublished roman à clef written by H.D. in the 1920s. He also introduced her reissued short fictions of the 1930s in Kora and Ka (New Directions, 1996).
Spoo is completing the Concise Encyclopedia of Law and Literature, co-edited with Simon Stern, and is at work, with Michael Everton, on Courtesy in American Publishing: Literature and Informal Norms in Copyright’s Vacuum, a book that traces the history of “trade courtesy” and lawful piracy in American publishing. He is also working on a book tentatively titled Ownerless Possessions: Modernism and its Public Domains, which explores law’s public domains—unregulated spaces where intellectual creations are not protected as property—in the works and lives of modern Irish, British, and American authors.
Spoo was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship for 2016-2017, and a Law and Public Affairs (LAPA) Fellowship at Princeton for 2020-2021. He received multiple Outstanding Teacher awards during his career at the University of Tulsa.
Teaching and Research Interests
Law and Legal Theory