Secrets

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Like any editor, I have my secret sources of information, personally satisfying but also useful in my professional role. Some of these sources are people, some are books, and a few are periodicals that give me a sense of stability, even buoyancy, in the torrent of words that always seems about to engulf my desk. The most important of these journals for me is the (London) Times Literary Supplement , a weekly newspaper that magisterially reviews every literary and academic subject. By keeping up with the erudite, often witty articles in TLS , one gets an incomparable sense of the best and most current thinking on any particular subject. In this way I have, over the years, been able to work up instant if evanescent expertise on such matters as geomorphology, the Albigensian heresy, and the relationship between Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot.

A journal new to me that I’ve come to admire is Technology and Culture , the official publication of the Society for the History of Technology. This quarterly provides almost all the information on its special topics that a nonspecialized editor like myself could wish for. Best of all, its writers are often so good they shame the general run of historians.

But the secret publication most useful to me, guiding me to important ideas, books, and scholars, is Reviews in American History . Published quarterly by the Johns Hopkins Press, Reviews has a circulation of only three thousand but deserves more. It always enlightens, often provokes. In a recent issue, for example, I was fascinated by James H. Hutson’s essay ‘The Creation of the Constitution: Scholarship at a Standstill.” Hutson carefully recapitulates the arguments of historians who have questioned and defended the motives of the framers of the Constitution. Over the centuries, and with more or less persuasiveness, the critics have seen the Constitution as the reflection of an upper-class conspiracy to check “popular majorities” (as Woodrow Wilson put it), as a document based on narrow economic self-interest, as a “bloody compromise” with the issue of slavery, and as a usurper of states’ rights. Such attacks—both conservative and radical—began in earnest with the posthumous publication in 1840 of James Madison’s firsthand notes on the Federal Convention (an event conducted in such secrecy, incidentally, it would astonish any present-day observer).

Recent scholarly positions on the origins of the Constitution are so contradictory and confused, Hutson asserts, that there is no larger picture, no consensus for the student, let alone the layman, to embrace. My own instinct is that a reminder of this long-standing controversy is a good thing on the eve of the bicentennial of the Convention, a time when a gilded version of the great compact is more to be feared than one that acknowledges its imperfections—imperfections the framers themselves admitted. Nevertheless, as Hutson concludes, “the public will expect enlightenment from historians about the creation of the document.” Which is just the kind of spur a journalist of history welcomes in searching out articles on a subject so big it’s hard to see at all.