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Paperback Originals

A Constitutional Documentary

December 28, 1986|JONATHAN KIRSCH

I already dread the inevitable orgy of ersatz ritual that will be upon us in 1987, the bicentennial year of the Constitution. Even now, I suspect, David Wolper is choreographing 100 John Jay impersonators for the opening ceremonies on the steps of the Supreme Court, and Ken Kragen is figuring out how many lawyers, laid end to end, are required to span the continent. More appropriate to the matter at hand, however, is Michael Kammen's The Origins of the American Constitution: A Documentary History (Penguin: $6.95), an anthology of source materials that demonstrates the considerable achievement of the Founding Fathers in fashioning what one contemporary characterized as "a great code in a small compass."

Today, the Constitution is no obscure and tedious legal document; rather, it is a dynamic and insistent influence in virtually all aspects of our lives: our schools, our workplaces, even our bedrooms. As we are reminded by the writings collected here--early Colonial efforts at constitution-making, the private correspondence of the Framers, the public debate of the Federalists and their adversaries--nothing in the history of our Constitution suggested that it would be such an efficient and enduring engine of democracy. "The amazing thing about the Constitution is that it is as good as it is--that so subtle and complete a document emerged from that long debate," wrote Mencken. "Most of the Framers, obviously, were second-rate men; before and after their session they accomplished nothing in the world. Yet during that session they made an almost perfect job of the work in hand."

Kammen gives us the Constitutional canon is only 12 pages of occasionally elegant and surprisingly plain-spoken 18th-Century prose--imagine what lawyerly monstrosity would emerge from a Constitutional convention in our day!--and devotes the rest of his book to the rhetorical birth pangs of our democracy. "I fear that we shall let slip the golden opportunity of rescuing the American empire from disunion anarchy and misery," Hamilton wrote to Washington during the stormiest days of the Constitutional convention.

Given "the natural diversity of human opinions on all new and complicated subjects," Madison wrote to Jefferson a few months later, "it is impossible to consider the degree of concord which ultimately prevailed as less than a miracle." From Paris, Jefferson wrote to John Adams: "How do you like our new Constitution? (The) President seems a bad edition of a Polish king."

The Constitution is a more palpable symbol of American democracy than, say, the Statue of Liberty, and thus even more deserving of celebration. But, as we learn from "The Origins of the American Constitution," the task is not always an easy one; certainly, the sweep and the subtlety of the Constitution cannot be encapsulated in 60-second platitudes and or depicted in the facile but essentially phony myths of a television spectacle. "The founders had assumed an involved citizenry," observes Kammen, "and the governmental system they created functions best when their assumption is validated."

"The reader who desires to have Johnson to himself for an hour, with no interpreter," wrote Walter Raleigh, "cannot do better than to turn to the notes on Shakespeare." Thus we have Selections From Johnson on Shakespeare (Yale University: $12.95, hardcover; $40), an especially accessible version of the late Bertrand H. Bronson's definitive two-volume work, edited with the assistance of Jean M. O'Meara. Johnson aspired to be a publisher, editor and critic of Shakespeare; more than two centuries later, Johnson's commentaries and revisions come to us as an odd, often impertinent and ultimately refreshing reading of Shakespeare. "I resign him to critical justice," observes Johnson, "without making any other demand in his favour, than that which must be indulged to all human excellence; that his virtues be rated with his failings."

On Beckett: Essays and Criticism (Evergreen/Grove: $12.95; $22.95, hardcover) is an ambitious anthology of some two dozen essays, interviews and reminiscences which ponder the life and work of the author, poet and playwright, edited by S. E. Gontarski, the scholar and director who recently staged a production of Beckett's "Company" at the Los Angeles Actors' Theatre. Some of the contributions are scholarly, some are biographical, almost all are fairly reverential, but the book has its moments of madness and high spirits, as when Susan Sontag, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs reminisce about a purported visit to Beckett: "The conversation seems almost a conspiracy of validation," Gontarski observes, "for the anti-empirical, anti-epistemological themes Beckett has been exploring for more than a half-century."

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