A COUNTRY WITH NO NAME by Sebastian de Grazia


Tales from the Constitution
Email this review


 A hothouse crossbreed of American history, ultraconservative constitutional exegesis, and softcore porn. No, really. In this long, weird book, Pulitzer Prizewinning biographer De Grazia (Machiavelli in Hell, not reviewed) tarts up his scholarship as ``twelve talks'' delivered by fictional English scholar/babe Claire St. John to her 19-year-old American tutee, the equally fictional Oliver Huggins. St. John lectures, rhapsodizes, titillates; Huggins, more Yahoo than Yankee, asks doltish questions (e.g., ``What makes a man like Sam Adams tick?''), bites her ear, and refrains from raping her when she shows up for a tutorial in her nightgown, barefoot and rain-drenched. This dumb framing device is too intrusive to ignore, but it does offer some relief from the author's smug, overblown analysis of the US Constitution. De Grazia's thesis is that the Constitution is ``null'' as a social contract, delineating no specific nation, no consolidated national government, no one ``people'' to whom it applies. On these crucial terms the Framers simply ``fudged,'' De Grazia argues: John Calhoun was right (the Constitution merely describes majority rule), Lincoln was wrong (there never was a ``union'' to preserve), and Chief Justice John Marshall was wrong (the Supreme Court does not have the right to pass on the constitutionality of congressional laws). In what is arguably the book's most obnoxious section, De Grazia casts St. John as ``Portia,'' a ``friend of the court'' lecturing Marshall on the folly of his seminal opinion Marbury v. Madison. All of this boils down to a fairly pedestrian paean to states' rights. What is notable here is the jaw-dropping, pretentious combination of retro-Anglophilia (``England is a nation, but the United States are not a nation''), chutzpah (``Let's revise the Star-Spangled Banner. Right now!''), and schoolboy hormones (``Huggins watched the rise and fall of her chest. . . . He thought wildly of [the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution]. Of equal prominence!'')

Pub Date: March 31st, 1997
ISBN: 0-679-41977-2
Page count: 432pp
Publisher: Pantheon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 1997