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Tales From the Constitution
By Sebastian de Grazia
416 pages, $27.50

Remember that Dutch nut Hendrik Van Loon? In the first half of this century he produced a load of popular histories, my favorites being "Ancient Man" and "The Story of Mankind." He did his own illustrations, curious stick drawings of the great personages and events. Van Loon's histories were always dedicated to the Van Loon lads, Hansje and Willem, and written for their understanding. Many home libraries in Buffalo still have their Van Loons tucked away on remote shelves.

Sebastian de Grazia probably had Jorge Luis Borges or John Barth in mind instead of Van Loon when he set about contriving the humorous frame tale of "A Country With No Name." His principal narrator, cool sexy Brit Americanist Claire St. John, marks with her name J. Hector St. John de Crevecocur, whose "Letters From an American Farmer" (1783) begins the Anglo-American register De Grazia works in, i.e. definitions of American nationality. Her student is Oliver Huggins, which should remind you of Kenneth Roberts' Revolutionary War romance "Oliver Wiswell," and later agrees with you that "Oliver Huggins" also has a certain African-American resonance. Claire and Oliver sit to discuss American nationality and dissertate on the problem of the national name.

"A Country With No Name" is set in the form of a Renaissance colloquy or tutorial. De Grazia in fact is a Renaissance scholar, winner of two 1990 Pulitzer Prizes for his biography "Machiavelli in Hell." The thought is going to occur to you as you read this weird book -- "where is this guy coming from?" De Grazia may have drunk too deeply of Machiavelli. He has, for instance, a very nasty reading of our blessed Abraham Lincoln.

For all de Grazia's certain virtuosity and the metafictive devices in the frame tale and the socko historical analysis in the lectures, you are still often reminded of the genially anecdotal and linear Van Loon with his brisk summaries, vivid captions and his march of events. In "A Country With No Name" de Grazia operates somewhere between Machiavelli/Borges and Hendrik Van Loon.

Here is De Grazia on Thomas Paine:

Now came Tom Paine's moment. A self-taught Englishman, one-time corsetmaker, sailor, teacher, low-grade crown servant, tobacconist, and grocer, he had emigrated from England in 1774 at age 34. No one knew that in his traveling cases were pen and vitriol.

Pure Van Loonery, especially the last sentence. And there are other looneries, some of a special kind, and a number of annoying features. Claire St. John archly ironizes her lectures on American history. She is condescending in her portrayal of the Founding Fathers and too interested in period fact and detail. Her tone is always superior, always righteous. "Upon a flurry of motions from the floor, Congress rushed to reply, demonstrating that it too could weasel words." De Grazia keeps a teacher/student romance cooking throughout the 12 tutorials that is finally inane.

Yet De Grazia's obsession with the name of our country is Melvillean in its passion and learning. In this book we are into the White Whalery of that name, always eluding us and never there, as France is, or Zambia. Where in contiguous bounded space is America? When was the name codified? De Grazia searches out the name in all its inaugural instances, its first references. He meditates on the name, and that is no little thing.

At one point de Grazia grills the federal Constitution. He has it in the hot light of scrutiny; he unpacks the parts of its speech, pays attentions to the kinds of constitutional nouns, to the positioning of its articles and the importance of the constitutional "the." On the question of the national name, de Grazia shows us, the Constitution weasels every time.

I suppose somebody has to call De Grazia out for what he actually is, a retro-Confederate ideologue, contemptuous of John Marshall's Marbury vs. Madison and hypercritical of Lincoln's Unionist argument in the first inaugural address.

The book has a long, adoring chapter on John C. Calhoun. It has some very bad things to say about Lincoln. "What Lincoln did was to form a precedent for crisis dictatorship and create a higher law than the Constitution of the United States, the unwritten law of the nation." Everywhere Lincolnian phrases -- some of the finest -- go into De Grazia's retro-Confederate logic chopper.

Must be the Pantheon censor doesn't care anymore. Unionist discourse, sleeping by the stove, is mostly oblivious to retro-Confederate discourse, which might at times be amusing, or somewhat threatening if crackpot and armed. The censor at Pantheon Books must have come to something of this conclusion: The book is wonderfully loony, de Grazia a very naughty Rebel fellow, readers will not mind how white it is and how randy is the frame tale, always ogling the tutor and sexualizing her banter.

As De Grazia has it, the name problem is resolved when extra-continental Hawaii enters the Union.

America's referent is now properly abstract. America signifies the Union, not a territory. This was, I think, one of the problems with Confederate discourse. Arguing the technicality, it missed the big picture.

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