I did it! I finished reading Ron Chernow’s massive biography of Alexander Hamilton with 4 more days to spare before I go to see the musical.
I’m not going to pretend this was a very easy feat for me – the first few hundred pages were quite uphill, perhaps because the stories about Hamilton’s distant relatives were not quite as interesting as the author seemed to think them. I also struggled a bit with the descriptions of Hamilton’s financial system – but I think that’s my fault rather than the biographer’s as I can’t pretend my understanding of economics is particularly good. This is the first biography of that kind of length that I’ve ever read, however, and it wasn’t as slow-paced as I had feared.
There’s something peculiar about biography as a genre – it takes the span of a single human life as its arc: most biographies begin with a birth and end with a death. It makes one consider these inevitabilities of human life – regardless of the events, inspiring or incriminating, that happen in the middle. A biography is basically a narrated story of human life in all its effervescent nature. There is something sobering about this.
Hamilton’s biography was of interest to me only because of its adaptation into musical form. I will happily admit that I had never heard of this particular founding father till he was made famous again by Lin-Manuel Miranda. And fans of the musical will find numerous treasures here. I was surprised to realize how much historical characters are quoted verbatim in the musical: the fourteen-year-old Hamilton wrote“ I wish there was a war”; after British landed at Kip’s Bay Washington exclaimed, “Are these the men with which I am to defend America?”… etc. Even certain phrases used in the book itself echo throughout the musical: Chernow dwells on Hamilton’s unstoppable nature “Non-stop”? and the fact that he decided to throw away his shot in the final duel “I will not throw away my shot”.
Despite those striking similarities, one is also impressed by the way in which Hamilton’s life was adapted to suit the demands of a musical drama. His childhood is after all condensed into the space of one song. Most importantly, Hamilton’s relationship with Burr is a driving force throughout the musical – the men are portrayed as polar opposites, clashing throughout each other’s lives. In fact, we are not sure how well Hamilton was acquainted with Burr before the revolution, and initially, they worked together in their capacity as lawyers. It is only later in their lives that conflict became inescapable, and even that was largely to Burr’s machinations in setting up the Manhattan Company ( a ruse led by Burr which claimed to be interested in providing New York with clean water – and as such was supported by Hamilton – only for it to turn out later to be setting up a bank and having no interest in providing people with clean water at all… to no-one’s surprise, Hamilton was absolutely furious.)
Another masterstroke in the musical was the development of the relationship between Hamilton and Angelica. In the biography when Hamilton and Angelica met, she was already a married woman who may or may not have had a romantic interest in him. Regardless, he had already determined to marry her younger sister. In the musical, we have a heartbreaking scene of romantic conflict between Angelica and Eliza, as both are in love the same man. There is not a slow point throughout the songs in the musical – each song drives the action and the conflict to another level.
The difference that surprised me most between the biography and the musical was the portrayal of the Reynolds Pamphlets. Maria Reynolds does not come off at all well in Chernow’s biography of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda leaves us considerable room for doubt.
Enough comparisons for the moment.
Would I recommend this book to Hamilton fans? Yes, particularly to those who have any sort of interest in late 18th-century/ 19th-century American politics. He comes across as a much more problematic man than he does in the musical. His professed dislike of dueling contrasts with the fact that he challenged Monroe to a duel (ultimately Aaron Burr helped to settle the conflict between them). His religious fervor contrasts with his refusal to attend church regularly. His inspired arguments against the British during the Revolution contrast with his support for the British during the French Revolution.
Another thing to note here is that a general knowledge of American history is very helpful when reading Chernow’s biography. There is one source that I cannot recommend enough – Joanne Freeman’s lectures (she is a professor of Early Modern History at Yale) on the American Revolution are absolutely fantastic. They are all available on youtube , iTunes podcasts, or if you are old-fashioned like myself – iTunes U. I now follow Joanne Freeman on Twitter. Just to give you an idea of how cool she is, she wrote a book on dueling and is credited by Lin-Manuel Miranda as the person who helped him understand the dueling culture in 18th century America.
Listening to those and reading the Hamilton book made me able to pretend that I was doing a course on the American revolution, which was absolutely amazing. The end of the 18th century is such a turbulent period in American history and it is incredibly exciting to learn more about it. It’s also really embarrassing to know so little about the American Revolution given that I did my Master’s in 18th Century and Romantic English Literature– but, of course, because this was in England, we didn’t even mention the American Revolution, because… well… why would you… (GRRRRR…)
Joanne Freeman also gave a lecture entitled Hamilton: the Man, the Myth and the Musical, which is also up on youtube. And as I’ve just found it, I shall have to go off and listen to it… So much Hamilton- immersion still needs to be done… Also, after reading Hamilton’s biography, I would probably be interested to read a biography of Angelica Church (because how could the musical ignore the fact that she had a correspondence with Jefferson as well as Hamilton?!?)