Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow

Alexander HamiltonHamilton fever has swept the nation, and I am not exempt.  I put off listening to the musical soundtrack for a long time mainly because I am not a rap/hip-hop type person, and that is, of course, what Hamilton's soundtrack is primarily comprised of.  But then PBS had an awesome documentary about the musical and the history behind it, and so I downloaded the soundtrack from Amazon and we listened to it on our way to New Jersey for Thanksgiving.  And on the way back.  And about 20 other times.  And when a friend on Facebook started singing the praises of the biography that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to write such a musical and said friend said he was looking for someone to discuss it with, I put in a request to the library.  Perks of working at a university: using the university inter-library system to request books so you don't have to wait for 30 people ahead of you to read the 700-page biography first.  Score!

Let me tell you this: Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton is heavy.  Definitely too heavy to carry around in my purse, which meant I had to pick away at it in smaller chunks than I would like.  And for those curious about how the real history differs from the musical, the answer is...a lot.  Mainly, Miranda played with the time line in huge ways, but he also drastically dramatized the relationship between Hamilton and Angelica Schuyler, and made Burr into a much more prominent and sympathetic character in Hamilton's story than he really was.

Now, for the book itself.  It spans Hamilton's entire life, but portions of it are necessarily clearer than others.  Hamilton was born in the Caribbean, making him one of the most prominent foreigners to feature in American history.  While the facts of Hamilton's childhood, such as the death of a succession of relatives that left him essentially, though not technically, orphaned is known, there are necessarily fewer documents that support Hamilton's own thoughts and development during this time.  Consequently, Chernow falls into a common pitfall of biographers of historical figures, who write hundreds of years after the fact.  Namely, he projects.  He goes into a lot of "It must have meant," and "Hamilton must have felt," and so on, a pattern that continues throughout the book in regards to how events of Hamilton's early life "must have" influenced his later life, though Chernow himself admits that Hamilton essentially severed himself from his childhood after his arrival in the United States, and particularly following the American Revolution.  Some of this projection also seems to apply to Aaron Burr and his background, though I can't say that I delved too deeply into Chernow's sited sources to see what he was drawing on for Burr's feelings on matters that weren't directly drawn from his own words.

My only other complaint about this book is in two parts.  First, Chernow sometimes has a tendency to go out of chronological order.  When he sees a connection between the events currently at hand and something that comes up later, he sometimes jumps to the later event to make sure that the connection is clear--and then ends up re-hashing the event, its precedents, and the connection.  This happens particularly in regards to elections.  As Chernow covers a variety of election levels at any one time, sometimes their orders and the impacts they have on each other get a bit jumbled together in the telling, and then when they come back later, it creates a sensation of, "Oh, wait, I thought we already covered this...?"

Other than that, I enjoyed this quite a bit.  I'm not typically very interested in American history, preferring European and Asian history, but Chernow does a great job of bringing Hamilton and his contemporaries to life.  Hamilton is definitely an under-studied figure in American history, overlooked in favor of the the other Founding Father such as Washington and Jefferson.  And while Chernow doesn't hesitate to point out how devious figures such as Madison and Jefferson could be, he also didn't shy away from pointing out Hamilton's own hypocrisy on various fronts and how he didn't always support the democratic republic form of government, instead favoring something akin to a monarchy (though not on the exact same lines as the British one).  He also doesn't go easy on Hamilton when getting into the Reynolds affair, pointing out how callous Hamilton was in arranging rendezvous with Maria Reynolds while trying to keep Eliza in Albany...though he does seem remarkably forgiving of the affair afterwards. 

Overall, I think this a great addition to the other volumes of biographies tied to figures of this period.  Hamilton has been very overlooked, and some of the other Founders much aggrandized in ways that, after reading this, don't seem entirely deserved.  Of course, reading biographies of those other figures might provide a different perspective; biographers do tend to be remarkably sympathetic toward their subjects, though understandably so given the amount of time they have to spend studying them.  Definitely worth a read, if you're interested in American history and have the time to devote.

4 stars out of 5.

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