Thursday, June 8, 2017

Finally, the (Alexander) Hamilton trifecta

      At last, I have completed the Hamilton trifecta. It's an early birthday present to myself.
      It only took four-plus months for me to read the book Hamilton, a mere 738 pages (small print). Quite a story, quite an effort.
      But I can now say that I won the duel.
      Bad joke. If you know the story -- and it's hard to imagine that you don't -- you know this does not have a happy ending. They all die in the end, but the hero most tragically of all.
      He did, when it counted most, throw away his (final) shot. But in more general terms, Alexander Hamilton took his shots at fame -- and succeeded like perhaps only one other  Founding Father did. And Hamilton, as we know, was George Washington's right-hand man (and vice versa).
      (It must be nice, it must be nice, to have Washington on your side.)
      Another bad joke: This book is a good enough read someone should write a play about it.
      Unless you have been woefully ignorant, you know Hamilton the play -- brilliantly written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, inspired by Ron Chernow's book -- dominated the entertainment world for months. It still is, I'm guessing, the toughest (and most expensive) ticket on Broadway.
      It was almost a year ago -- Sunday, June 12 -- that to no one's surprise, Hamilton won 11 Tony Awards (from 16 nominations). Which proved that hip hop, applied to history and Broadway, does work.
      It was a wonderful Tony Awards show (how many times, really, do so many people pay attention to the Tonys?), but also a sad day. During the CBS-TV show, the performers paid proper homage to the horrible nightclub shootings early that day in Orlando when 49 people were killed.
      (By the way, people, just to repeat and rub in trite tweets, Hamilton is not highly overrated.) 
      We -- wife, daughter and me -- have been Hamiltonians almost from the start. Of course, I had to be converted.
      Bea caught on first, having seen Lin-Manuel Miranda's performance at the White House when, still in the process of writing the music for the play, he introduced the opening number: "How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean ... "

     She told Rachel about it, Rachel loved it and soon found the trifecta -- Hamilton (Chernow's book), Hamilton the Revolution (the book about the play), and Hamilton an American Musican (the CD by the original Broadway cast) -- arrived at our place, Rachel's birthday gift to Bea a year ago.
      We have listened to that CD maybe, oh, 150 times. I have been hearing lines from it, and the play, almost daily for more than a year. And it actually turned me into a Hamilton fan. Hip hop hooray.
      Even Eli, our 2 1/2-year-old grandson, last week was singing to his mother, "I am not throwing away my shot."
      Bea read both books, and said I might like them.
      Reading is probably what I like doing best these days,  although walking and following baseball (if one particular team is faring well) are close. Because I am usually busy with one or two or three books and spending time reading on the computer (seldom see actual printed newspapers now), the Hamilton books were on the "future" list for half a year.     
      Finally started the book about the play in December and finished in early January. It was very good, with Miranda's explanation of how the play and the music developed, the lyrics for all the songs, and stories of the cast members and how the cast was selected. That was 285 pages, with lots of full-color photos.
       We -- again, Rachel, Bea and me -- all learned to love the cast members. Please don't make too much of this, but "obsessed" might be the proper word here. I am afraid that Bea would trade me for Lin-Manuel Miranda, although she assured me she wouldn't.
      (An OCD part of me is that I keep a list of the books I read. So, between printed books and audio books, it was 34 a year ago and 20 this year before Hamilton.)
      Then it was on to the big book. It was, obviously, no start-to-finish project. I started and stopped repeatedly, mixing in my daily reading and other books. And because Chernow has so much rich detail and prolonged background material, it was not an easy or quick read.
      But it was riveting. I did not skip parts or read past them. American history is one of my favorite subjects -- maybe next to baseball history -- and always has been.
      We also had done the audio version of Chernow's book on George Washington, so we knew how detailed he wrote and we knew some of the strong connection between the first President and Mr. Hamilton.
      I was reminded many times, and kept telling Bea, that politics then, as the Revolutionary War was fought and won and the United States of America came into being, was as dirty as it is now. Truly -- as is often said -- the more things change, the more they stay the same.

      Many of those men -- Hamilton, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr, James Madison, James Monroe -- were fierce and demeaning and arrogant. Just about all of them despised Hamilton, and he despised them, at least politically and sometimes personally.
       Federalists (Washington, Hamilton, Adams) vs. Republicans (Jefferson, Madison, Monroe) was just like Democrats vs. Republicans. Burr, the most villainous, was an entity by himself -- a Republican courting Federalists because he was interested only in promoting himself.
       A strong central government vs. states rights was an issue then, as it is now.
       Washington was the best statesman, but even he came under strong opposition and criticism, especially as he grew older and more tired in his second term. He always leaned on Hamilton to write his speeches for him, including his famous farewell address.
        Media was just as vicious and divided. Difference now, of course, is that we now have so much more media coverage and -- good or bad -- so much more social media.
       Another slight difference: If you demeaned a person in those days, he could challenge you to a duel. Thus, Hamilton and Burr ... and it was not the first duel challenge for either one.

       Can you imagine duels today? We'd have one every day.
       Anyway, the book makes one appreciate Alexander Hamilton for the brilliant, creative (and almost unsung) Founding Father he was, for the many original things he gave this country (most notably the financial system, the U.S. Military Academy, ect.) and the flawed character that helped lead to his too-early demise. And damned Aaron Burr: the Vice-President who shot our hero to death.
        The opening and closing chapters, though, present the most heroic character: Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, Alexander's loyal wife and preserver of his legend. She lived to 97, almost to the Civil War, and reading about her at the end was, for me, the most emotional and heartwarming part of the book.
        It only took about 730 pages and five months to get there. Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?
        If you have lots of time, and you love early American history, I recommend you read the book. If not, know that I did and enjoyed it, and I am ready to continue on to the rest of my life.


  1. From Netty Matthews: It's taking me a while to work myself through this book.

  2. From John Henry: I'll try this out, though I'm more a Jeffersonian in political thought. Hamilton intrigues ... and I'll most definitely take a peek when the Broadway version begins to travel. I'm in the midst of "Passage to Power," Caro's fourth installment of his LBJ work. Can't get enough of the tragic/comic character that was No. 36. He was something else.
    You're right on political culture, though, and I keep trying to tell people who claim our politics are worse now than ever: Go read a book ... doesn't matter the era of American history ... go read a book and get back to me. The world didn't start to spin at your -- not you, the general "you" -- birth.

  3. From Teddy Allen: "Hip hop hooray." HA!

  4. From Tom Dark: The Chernow book is the deepest, slowest read ever ... but worth it.

  5. From Cynthia Aillet Murry: This is a really good review. Now I might have to get into all of this.

  6. From Frank Bright: Like you, I just got around to reading the Chernow book. Have not seen the play, but plan to next get the CD for immersion/bingeing.
    Since engineers at La. Tech "did not need to know history," I have been playing catchup. There is a lot of good stuff out there.
    Thanks for this piece.

  7. From Doug Bland: I started watching the TV series on Einstein and decided to read the book. It's as long as Hamilton and doesn't have duels, just a lot of physics. I don't know when or if I'll finish it.

  8. From Susan Burkhart: Thanks for your Hamilton blog. I've read 20 percent, but haven't read any of it for a couple of months. I think this will get me back into it.