Title: Alexander Hamilton
Author: Ron Chernow
Publisher: Penguin Books
Rating: 5 out of 5
How I got it: I bought a copy for myself
It’s pretty much old hat at this point to say that the success of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop Broadway musical of the life of U.S. founding father Alexander Hamilton, was so improbable. A musical based on Ron Chernow’s award-winning biography of America’s first Treasury Secretary? With hip-hop and a cast full of actors of colour? It sounded like it wouldn’t sell. But it did. And I and millions of other people not lucky (or rich) enough to live in Manhattan have been trying to enjoy the musical vicariously by listening to the official cast recording or by reading Chernow’s biography, which is what started the whole thing in the first place.
Oh, and by the way — this year’s Tony Award nominations are being announced as I finalize this post. I predict that Hamilton will get a fuck-ton of nominations and then, come June, stomp all over the awards ceremony like Godzilla. Because this musical deserves it, and I reeeeaaallly wanted it to be nominated for a Hugo, and I’m still pissed that the Sad Puppies ruined this year’s Best Related Work category. So there.
So, yes, let me say: I love the Hamilton musical. I started listening to it over New Year’s and I’ve been doing so nearly non-stop (ha!) ever since. It’s an amazing synthesis of style, culture, history and political statement; I say this as someone who has until this point pretty much hasn’t listened to a lot of rap, R&B, and hip-hop. Hell, I’m even managing to (slowly) convert my husband towards the cause! Even if he’s not a Hamilfan like me, he’s bopped along to the King George songs and watched some #Ham4Ham videos.
I read Chernow’s biography Alexander Hamilton as a way to round out my understanding of the musical as a cultural phenomenon. What was it that Lin-Manuel Miranda saw in this book? After reading it, I’m still not sure how he happened across such an unusual mode of adaptation. Trying to figure this out is a major reason why I’m even writing a Hamilton book review.
I mean, when I read it, I kept imagining all the characters and locations — Hamilton, Washington, the constitutional convention, revolution-era New York — as elements of a lush HBO miniseries, replete with fire-lit conversations and austere, period-appropriate attire. In contrast, comparing Hamilton’s life to the mythologized, tragic arcs of modern-day music is something I think only Miranda could have done. I feel small and hidebound in comparison.
Aside from that, the book is astounding on its own merits as a literary work. I’m amazed by the depth and breadth of research Chernow had to do to write it. Just thinking of all of the research involved — consulting not only all of Hamilton’s original writings, but those of his contemporaries, as well as digging up heretofore unseen information regarding his family and origins — is exhausting. Does Chernow write every second he’s alive, like he’s running out of time?
Part of why this book strikes me as so monumental is that, as a Canadian, I don’t know very much about American history or the structure behind American politics. Reading Hamilton has been surprisingly insightful, because now I have a better sense of certain aspects of the American political character — like the constant tension between federal and state governments — that seem to be hard-wired. Given the current contentious political climate down there, this is pretty useful context.
However, one problem with it being so comprehensive is that the musical, by necessity, is forced to condense and omit things. In my attempt to keep my head straight, I mentally ticked off the track listing as I progressed through the book — “oh, I’m right around the part where ‘Your Obedient Servant’ is” — but there were large stretches of the book where no equivalent song from the musical applied, or where a single song covered what seemed to be a decade’s worth of events.
On top of that, Chernow’s biography isn’t completely chronological; instead, it’s organized into certain overarching episodes. I had a hard time keeping things straight in my head and would have appreciated a timeline in the back of the book to untangle all of the things happening concurrently. This is especially true considering the musical’s divergences from historical fact.
Miranda’s choices to streamline Hamilton‘s narrative make a lot of sense, even if trying to find a 1:1 correspondence to events in the book are difficult. However, one choice that I’m really surprised by is the presence of “Burn”. In the musical, “Burn” is a heartbreaking song where Eliza, Hamilton’s wife, decides to burn all of her correspondence with her husband as a result of him revealing a disastrous affair — she’s attempting to regain agency over her life by erasing herself from the narrative.
However, Chernow devotes, at most, only one or two sentences in the entire biography to this idea. And, although he believes that Eliza did burn her letters, he has little evidence to back this assertion up beyond the fact that so few of her letters are currently accounted for. That Miranda makes an entire song out of this tiny snippet of information fits in with his revisionist take on American history, but I was really surprised by how little space this idea took up in the original source material.
On a side note: Eliza is amazing. Eliza is wonderful. Eliza is a beautiful cinnamon roll too pure for this world, and I want a book all about her widowhood where she struggles to make do for herself and her children and becomes a beacon of hope for orphaned children and a beloved relic of the revolution in her old age. Can Chernow make this happen? If so, I can’t wait for it.
There is so much else I want to say in a Hamilton book review like this, like my love for the braggadocio of the Broadway incarnation of Hercules Mulligan or my grudging respect for the impact that Aaron Burr had on American politics. For example, I think there are some really trenchant observations to be made about the parallels between modern-day social media and the voraciousness of the newspapers of the revolutionary period. Man, those printers were fierce! Even worse, their prose was so hyperbolic! I had a hard time taking such biased writing seriously, even if it was appropriate to the period. But I like to think that a few decades from now, trollishness on Twitter will look similarly antiquated and disreputable. (God, I hope I’m satisfied.)
I recognize that I’m babbling by this point. Hamilton-the-musical is really, really good, and so is Hamilton-the-book. Both works represent artists at the top of their form, creating works that are nuanced, multi-layered, and the product of intense effort. I respect that kind of work ethic, and I have a feeling that Alexander Hamilton himself, the man behind it all, would be proud.
By the way, if you’re looking for a really in-depth analysis of the book and how it compares to the musical, check out The Hamilcast, a podcast where a few fans discuss Chernow’s biography chapter by chapter. I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with them on Twitter, and they seem to be good folks.