Synopses & Reviews
In 1987, E.L. Doctorow celebrated the Constitution's bicentennial by reading it. "It is five thousand words long but reads like fifty thousand," he said. Distinguished legal scholar Garrett Epps--himself an award-winning novelist--disagrees. It's about 7,500 words. And Doctorow "missed a good deal of high rhetoric, many literary tropes, and even a trace of, if not wit, at least irony," he writes. Americans may venerate the Constitution, "but all too seldom is it read."
In American Epic, Epps takes us through a complete reading of the Constitution--even the "boring" parts--to achieve an appreciation of its power and a holistic understanding of what it says. In this book he seeks not to provide a definitive interpretation, but to listen to the language and ponder its meaning. He draws on four modes of reading: scriptural, legal, lyric, and epic. The Constitution's first three words, for example, sound spiritual--but Epps finds them to be more aspirational than prayer-like. "Prayers are addressed to someone . . . either an earthly king or a divine lord, and great care is taken to name the addressee. . . . This does the reverse. The speaker is 'the people,' the words addressed to the world at large." He turns the Second Amendment into a poem to illuminate its ambiguity. He notices oddities and omissions. The Constitution lays out rules for presidential appointment of officers, for example, but not removal. Should the Senate approve each firing? Can it withdraw its "advice and consent" and force a resignation? And he challenges himself, as seen in his surprising discussion of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in light of Article 4, which orders states to give "full faith and credit" to the acts of other states.
Wry, original, and surprising, American Epic is a scholarly and literary tour de force.
"Epps has created the ideal study guide for civics and political science classes, an intelligent and provocative tour through the fascinatingly complicated, vitally important blueprint of the United States." --Publishers Weekly (starred review)
The Constitution is about to turn 225 years old, and throughout its long history, attempts to discern its meaning have dominated American politics. Indeed, arguments over its meaning are more animated today than ever given the popularity of the Tea Party, whose adherents demand strict adherence to what they regard as its true, original meaning. It is therefore not surprising that deep interest among the lay public in the Constitution's text is often associated with a very specific fundamentalist approach to interpretation.
In American Epic, the eminent legal scholar Garrett Epps also reads the constitution closely, but with a very different aim. He shares his own interpretations of the text of the U.S. Constitution-as law, as poetry, as narrative, and as What the Framers Intended-both as a guide and an inspiration for others as they explore the document for themselves and find their own approaches. He shows that it is possible to pay close attention to each word and sentence in the Constitution without interpreting it narrowly; to engage with the text not searching for one meaning, but many. A fluid and engaging writer, Epps' learned and surprising reading of the Constitution will make readers look at the document in an entirely new way.
About the Author
is Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore Law School. A former staff writer for the Washington Post
, he has written for the New York Times, New Republic, The New York Review of Books
, and the Atlantic
. Two of his nonfiction books, Democracy Reborn
and To An Unknown God
, have been finalists for the American Bar Association's Silver Gavel Award. One of his two novels, The Shad Treatment
, won the Lillian Smith Book Award.
Table of Contents
Preamble: "Tell me, Muse, how it all began"
Article I: A Tale of Two Cities
Article II: Under the Bramble Bush
Article III: Solomon's Sword
Article IV: All God's Chidren
Article V: Alter or Abolish
Article VI: The Supreme Law of the Land
Article VII: Bloodless and Successful