The Royalist Revolution: Monarchy and the American Founding, by Eric Nelson (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press; 390 pp., $29.95). Historians have long noted the seeming paradox that the Framers of the U.S. Constitution invested the office of the American president with greater powers than those enjoyed by the English king, whose “yoke” they had just thrown off. This thoroughly researched, elegantly written, and extremely interesting book answers the question conclusively. From the 1760’s to the 1780’s, Nelson explains, the American colonists reconsidered the nature of their relationship with the British government as they gradually came round to the view that Parliament, not the king, was their oppressor—a conclusion that reflected the royalist side of a debate concerning the relative power of Crown and Parliament that had preoccupied British politics for much of the century. This was the view that was adopted by the colonial leaders who, after independence had been won, became known as the Federalists—men like John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, who wielded a conservative influence during the Constitutional Convention, and afterward. The Royalist Revolution is essential to a proper understanding of the history of America in the latter half of the 18th century.
Augustine: Conversions to Confessions, by Robin Lane Fox (New York: Basic Books; 657 pp., $35.00). This book represents a distinctive and unfortunate type of modern scholarship that endeavors to be imaginative and “creative” and fails at both creativity and scholarship. The author, a well-known English classical scholar, explains that he composed it as “a biographical symphony whose theme is Augustine’s life up to the age of forty-three.” The first part of the book subordinates “confessions” to “conversions”; the second half the reverse. Augustine counterposes its subject’s experiences and ideas with those of Libanius, the Greek-speaking rhetorician and pagan, and Synesius, a Greek bishop of Ptolemais, who were only approximately his contemporaries. Just what the purpose of this approach is I am unable to discern, and unless I have lost the ability to read, some of the sentences either make no sense or simply say nothing. Prof. Lane Fox stipulates that he does not share Augustine’s faith, which only adds to the puzzle.
Understanding Italian Opera, by Tim Carter (New York: Oxford University Press; 267 pp., $24.95). This book, by a professor of music at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, will appeal to the general reader with an interest in opera, as well as to professional music students and performers. Tim Carter is concerned here with what makes the opera a unique artistic genre. His principal subject, however, is how librettists and composers work together to combine poetic with musical meter to produce a work that is singable, pleasant to the ear, and dramatically effective. He has selected five Italian operas (including Giulio Cesare in Egitto, with a score by Handel, who though German was working here in the Italianate style and idiom), among them Le Nozze di Figaro, Rigoletto, and La Bohème, and he has analyzed them closely as examples of the collaborative process. The result is as enlightening as it is fascinating, owing in part to Professor Carter’s lucid style in handling often complex musical matters.
—Chilton Williamson, Jr.