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Now in paper

Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention, May to September 1787, by Catherine Drinker Bowen. Foreword by Warren E. Burger. Boston: Atlantic-Little, Brown. 384 pp. $8.95. This year marks the bicentenary of the United States Constitution, and Catherine Drinker Bowen's colorful re-creation of the Constitutional Convention provides an inviting introduction to the subject.

The leading personages - Madison, Hamilton, Washington, Patrick Henry, George Mason, Gouverneur Morris, et al. - are drawn with novelistic flair (Bowen is well known as a biographer with the ability to bring her subjects to life), and the conflicts - between North and South, merchant and planter, conservatives and radicals, large states and small - are portrayed with full appreciation of their intellectual and dramatic potential. This edition bears a foreword by Warren Burger, former chief justice of the United States, Warren Burger, who is now chairman of the Commission of the Bicentennial of the United States Constitution. The Origins of the American Constitution: A Documentary History, edited with an introduction by Michael Kammen. New York: Penguin. 407 pp. $6.95. A paperback original.

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This invaluable collection of primary sources gives us a clear and fascinating picture of the matrix of contending ideas and interests, principles, and politics from which the Constitution took its shape. We hear, from the authors of the Federalist Papers (Hamilton, Madison, et al.), that ``liberty may be endangered by the abuses of liberty, as well as by the abuses of power.'' We also hear, from anti-Federalists (like George Mason), the concern that the new government is in danger of becoming a monarchy or a ``corrupt, oppressive aristocracy.'' Also included are the Articles of Confederation (1777); selections from the correspondence of the founders; texts of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, plus other writings crucial to the formulation and ratification of the Constitution. The commentary and notes by historian Michael Kammen are brief, helpful, and always to the point. The documents themselves are seldom ``dry,'' and indeed, are pithy, eloquent, witty, passionate, well reasoned, terse, or magisterial, reflecting a host of individual viewpoints and voices. American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle, expanded edition by Gerald Bordman. New York: Oxford University Press. 787 pp. $19.95.

Newly expanded, this lively reference provides a detailed history of musical theater in America, from its shadowy origins in the 1860s to what Bordman considers perhaps its worst season in history: 1984-85. Arranged chronologically, this book takes us through musical theater history season by season, year by year, with accounts of seemingly every production, from long-running hits that changed theater history to shows that closed on opening night: musicals, operettas, burlesques, and revues. Brief biographies of important actors, producers, writers, composers, and lyricists are interspersed with descriptions of the shows.

Memorable - and forgettable - songs are duly noted. Bordman even includes representative swatches of dialogue to give us the flavor of particular shows, and he is anything but hesitant about offering his own evaluations. This delightful book has three separate indexes (for shows, songs, and people), making it as convenient to use as it is entertaining to browse through. Bitburg in Moral and Political Perspective, edited with an introduction by Geoffrey H. Hartman. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press. 284 pp. $9.95. Illustrated.

On May 5, 1985, despite a continuing storm of protest, President Reagan visited a German military cemetery containing the graves of 49 members of the Nazi SS elite. But since remembrance is the least, if not the only, thing that can be done, a visit that seemed to symbolize forgetting could not but offend people who had taken the pains to remember.

For those who didn't understand what caused such consternation - and for those of us who think we do - this excellent collection of essays, news articles, editorials, and other documents illuminates many aspects of Bitburg and the questions it raised. It includes thought-provoking essays surveying everything from ``The Memory of Offense'' (Primo Levi) to the response of the Christian world (A.Roy Eckhardt) and vital documents, from President Reagan's remarks defending his agenda to West German President Richard von Weizs"acker's impressive speech in the Bundestag denouncing Nazi crimes. The World of Charles Dickens, by Angus Wilson. Chicago: A Viking Studio Book, dist. by Academy Chicago Publishers. 302 pp. $8.95. Illustrated.

One of England's finest postwar novelists, Angus Wilson is a brilliant creator of character in the tradition of Charles Dickens. His sense of comedy and pathos, his uncanny ear for dialogue, and his willingness to experiment with fictional form have yielded eight richly inventive novels, each surprisingly different from the others. Wilson's charmingly illustrated tribute to Dickens, first published in 1970, remains for all its easy urbanity one of the most shrewdly insightful studies of the great Victorian, a happy blend of biography and literary criticism. Four of Wilson's own novels and one collection of his stories are also available in paperback from Academy Chicago: ``Hemlock and After'' (1952), his first novel; ``The Old Men at the Zoo'' (1961), a vision of war; ``Late Call'' (1964), an engaging account of a middle-aged woman adjusting to a rapidly changing world; and ``No Laughing Matter'' (1967), an ambitious family chronicle.

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