- American Epic: Reading the US Constitution by Garrett Epps
In this nicely written and creative book, law professor Garrett Epps guides his readers through a close and extended reading of the text of the US Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and subsequent amendments. The guiding spirit of that reading is a keen awareness of the poverty of our contemporary relationship with the text, or better yet, the rich but unrealized potential of our many relationships to the text. He invites us to get to know it. The Constitution, Epps suggests, is not simply a distinct and authoritative text, but a kind of material fabric of national life, popping up and asserting itself throughout history, and, in its genius and its flaws, relating itself to multiple other aspects of national life, including other texts. To make the text transparent and open to contemporary readers, Epps gives us his reading, his relationship to the “epic” narrative of founding and democracy in the text itself. In doing so, his project lays bare the promise and perils of America’s unique commitment to that fundamental text.
Scholars looking for engagement with much of the recent work by historians, legal scholars, and political scientists will be by and large disappointed. The book is written for a broad audience, and it is too bad that little of the early modern Atlantic and imperial context or of the popular insurgencies driving the constitutional politics of the time that scholars [End Page 933] have done so much to reconstruct shows up here. Likewise, readers who understand the project of the book according to the title and introduction’s implied suggestion that we read the US Constitution as a classical epic written for modern life will also be disappointed. Epps suggests he will follow the logics of four possible modes of reading—“scriptural, legal, lyric, and epic”—but the trajectory of the book weaves in and out of these modes rather loosely, without any clear justification for the fitness of one over the other in particular contexts other than what strikes the author’s fancy (xxi). If we are going to go by one individual’s interpretation (and Epps is quite clear that these are just his subjective ruminations), Epps seems as good a start as anyone else writing books about constitutional meaning these days—indeed, better than most—but this awareness of the inherently personal and contingent, even arbitrary nature of reading does not seem to have given him reason to reflect on what this means for our politics. Epps does not explore the implications of the idea that everyone is their own chief justice—rather, he observes honestly that this might be the case and takes full advantage of the opportunity.
The book delivers what amounts to two readings, one an often clear and direct guide to the actual text of the Constitution, and the other a freely associative one. Here is where readers of all sorts might run into trouble. It is again not clear at all what the relationship between these two readings is supposed to be, and the associations, taken from scripture and other canonical sources of Western literature, are often random. Discussing the preamble, Epps declares it is not a prayer (who thought that it was?) but a presumptive characterization of the speaker as the “people.” He asks us to consider how the opening lines of the Iliad and the Aeneid invoking the Muse represent a similar claim of “deceptive authorship” (4). He compares the representative structures outlined by Article I to Walt Whitman’s harvesting of the voices of America (20–21). He draws repeated attention to the text of the Constitution as a kind of secular scripture. All of these ruminations are well and good, but Epps does not dwell on these parallels or explore their possibilities. Instead, he uses them to build assertions that are distractingly overgeneral. His chapter on Article II begins with a brief mention of a passage from the book of Judges, the parable of the bramble, and moves to this: “From as far as back as...