Friday, January 22, 2016

Young, scrappy, and hungry

It's that time of week again -- not quite the time when #Hamalong posts are due, but a little afterward.

We're just on part three of the readalong (chapters ten through fourteen) but I may be starting to flag a bit. Only... four hundred pages to go?! Geez. This book is so unnecessarily long it makes me mad sometimes. You need look no further for an example than page 247:

Sometimes you come across a conflict in your sources, and you have to make a decision: do you think one or another option is more convincing, or do you present both and give them equal weight? But you know what you do first? YOU SHOULD CONSIDER WHETHER ANYONE, ANYONE ON EARTH, CARES OR SHOULD CARE. Honest to goodness, it's a scandal the way publishers cut corners on editing these days.

I've seen other Hamalongers commenting on Chernow's fanboying over Hamilton, and on that note my criticisms from last time stand. The thing I would add to that, which comes to the fore especially in this section as we get lots and lots of constitutional wrangling, is that he has what I would call an American historian's narrow vision. Yeah, that's right! I went there!

So Hamilton apparently gave an insanely long speech at a confidential convention (so it's poorly documented) that is a Big Deal because many people have taken this speech as characteristic of Hamilton's real opinions, and not in a good way. I say "apparently" because Chernow approaches this event as someone who has read and re-read every two-bit Hamilton biography ever attempted: that is, he eagerly jumps into discussing this speech as something that obviously we all know is a big deal. I thought he could have done a better job with setting this up, but ok, whatever.

The thing that got me -- and it's not just Chernow I'm picking on here -- is that apparently Hamilton's suggestion of an "elective monarchy" is some huge unforgivable sin. R U SRS? Constitutional monarchy -- yeah, the hereditary kind -- remains a very respectable liberal goal in Europe for at least another hundred years. I really don't understand why it's so outrageous for Americans to be putting forward ideas that are really not that far off the wall in any context except comparing them to what actually happened and we've decided has worked and therefore, in retrospect, was "right". Or, okay, I can understand why people might feel this way, but I don't understand how people who call themselves historians can write history this way. (I may be a little tired and cranky as I write this. Or a lot tired and cranky.) It's bizarre. Chernow himself writes that "admiration for the British political system was still widespread" right in between calling Hamilton's proposal "atrociously misguided" and a "blunder". The last two judgments appear in the text as Chernow's own.

Anyway, I don't want to just be negative. I was gratified by Chernow's statement that "those who criticize Hamilton for having engaged in a propaganda exercise in The Federalist must reckon with the tremendous continuity that connects the Federalist essays to both his earlier and later writings" (257). This is the kind of judgment that I am happy to accept from him. Maybe it's just the weight of being further along in the book, but this thesis about consistency is convincing and a satisfying way to understand a life. Incidentally, this characterization is part of what makes the musical so great too.

In this section I kept thinking about Hamilton the auto-didact: has there ever been any other time in history when someone could be so well self-taught? I mean, in the 18th century not only were there low barriers to obtaining the latest and greatest in any field at all, but few enough barriers on someone who had actually taught it to himself instead of having a degree to certify it. I suppose part of it was that the system of academic disciplines we take for granted today hadn't formed yet. Men of the Enlightenment weren't studying economics; they were (or thought they were) simply observing trade and drawing conclusions. Anyone who could, could play along. Hamilton had quite worldly reasons for pursuing his advancement this way; he seems like the ideal type of the Enlightenment scholar but maybe with a little more unapologetically practical ambition.

Confession time: here's what I got. I didn't actually make it through Chapter Fourteen yet, which I'm kicking myself over because flipping ahead it looks pretty good. If it is, maybe I'll include it next week. And on that note, adieu until next week!

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Your obedient servant

Just now noticing that the N in "Readalong" is retained from the original cover. Nice work.

It's the Hamilton Readalong with Alice! This week we're through chapter nine, and if I'm scandalized by the revelation that Baron von Steuben was a fake baron, I'm also delighted that Peggy Scuyler was way cooler than the musical lets on.

We get a fairly important thesis statement on page 158: "Hamilton's life was to be all of a piece... His views did not change greatly over time so much as expand in richness, depth, and scope." If you feel at all like Chernow is reading opinions or interpretations backward or forward in his subject's life this here would be why. I have to say, I am not used to reading biographies or history books written for the popular press, and I keep stopping to remind myself that this isn't an academic monograph. It still feels strange to have statements like this just thrown in, with all the argument to support it made implicit.

Chernow's research is deep but not wide, which frankly I think is the privilege of someone whose job it is to write giant award-winning bestsellers for the popular press. There are a lot of points in this book where I suspect something Chernow flags as unusual is actually rather common. For instance, on page 85, where he describes the newspaper boilerplate of "may hear something to his advantage" as a "cryptic sentence". Even stranger is page 129 where he breathlessly comments that "Hamilton must have been struck by the coincidence that his paternal grandfather, Alexander Hamilton, had also married an Elizabeth who was the daughter of a rich, illustrious man." Or... those are pretty common names? And again, page 170, this confusing little thing where Hamilton writes some essays and then, we are told, must have "lost or misplaced" them based on the fact that when they were published they were described as "lately recovered". Setting aside the fact that I do not understand what we are talking about here or why this is important, is there some reason to think this is a trustworthy publishing history? It's a strange detail.

A more extended example of this is the discussion of dueling on page 117 where it becomes clear that Chernow can't get past the idea that the practice was "anachronistic" and "a barbaric relic of a feudal age". It had been my understanding -- and five minutes of quick searching around has not turned up what I read that I'm thinking of -- that duelling enjoyed a resurgence in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the Enlightenment's print culture brought with it a new codification of the procedure. In other words, it might have been "ancient" but it was also trendy. Like mason jars. Is there some reason why Hamilton would have thought of dueling in those negative terms? That to me is the question that really needs answering.

The big place where I find myself wanting more breadth is in Chernow's readings of personal letters. It might just be that I'm more skeptical than he is, but I read things like "Alexander's sincere entreaties that [James Hamilton] come to America" (148) or "in a poetic conceit that he often played with but never acted upon, he toyed with abandoning worldly pursuits to luxuriate in her company" (160), and I think: come on, man, exercise those critical faculties. Now, Chernow's readings deserve respect: reading a person's entire body of writing can give you an intuitive insight into what is unusual in someone's writing. It's probably the only way to be able to reliably draw evidence out of something like the appearance of someone's handwriting (not that I've seen Chernow make those kind of points so far, I don't think). And look -- all of us who have exchanged emails with a crush know the difficulties of interpreting the intentions behind a letter. But, even though it's not my specialty, I feel morally certain there must be a significant literature about 18th/19th century epistolary conventions and the interpretation of "flowery" language. Right? And yet the letters are so often taken at face value -- well, except for John Laurens. Chernow knows how to soft-pedal there.

I'm not "trashing" the book or questioning his conclusions; I'm just trying to identify what he's doing and not doing. Just to issue a disclaimer before you hit the comment box, it is after all almost literally my job to find the edges of what other people have done in order to find where questions can be fruitfully asked; in short, it's my job to criticize. People often approach popular histories in particular with a kind of good/bad attitude: is it good? is it trustworthy? What I'm seeing here is a book which gives us an extremely detailed view of one man's career and writings, but which is pretty thinly connected to anyone else's work on the time period more broadly which might provide us with context to interpret that life. In the bigger conversation, Chernow provides a characterization and a set of conclusions which can be debated using more specialist knowledge; especially since in this case he doesn't seem to have taken much notice of that specialist knowledge at all. That's scholarship: everyone putting their little specializations together.

This book is giving me a great refresher (*cough*) on the history of revolutionary America, which I don't think I've studied since high school. And even then, I sort of skipped that founding fathers bit because my American history class in Virginia glossed over it on the grounds that you'd get it all in your Virginia history and civics class the following year, which in my case was taught by a very young woman constantly on the edge of a nervous breakdown. So I am learning a lot here.

And I did draw one heart in the margins in this section: "Hamilton could also be quite waspish about his chosen profession, telling Lafayette that he was busy 'rocking the cradle and studying the art of fleecing my neighbors'" (168). D'awwww.

Friday, January 8, 2016

I don't write like I'm running out of time, unfortunately.


Hosted by Alice, this is where we all permit our love of what must be the most incredible piece of American art of the 21st century so far lead us into reading an absolute doorstopper of a book.

Unfortunately for me, in this first week we've pretty much covered the part of this story I was most curious about. Having special professional interest in the British empire, I was hoping for a juicy exploration of Hamilton's childhood in the Caribbean. Chernow's done good work with not much to go on -- the acknowledgments (at the end, but as every historian knows, worth skimming at the beginning) are an adventure in their own right, with a fleet of research assistants and helpful archivists on the various islands and at Kew (and in Denmark!), and hooray for that. Listening to the musical, I could hear exciting echoes of the live-fast-die-young planter mentality, and I was gratified to find the biography describing this environment as a key influence.

I did frown a bit at: "Appropriately enough, this boy destined to be America's foremost Anglophile entered the world as a British subject, born on a British isle, in the reign of George II" (17). Uh?? Is this not true of all the founding fathers?? I mean, I know the American colonies are Special and Touched by Destiny and all?? Granted that I could have dwelt on this part of Hamilton's life for twice as many pages; but nevertheless I thought the weakest aspect of this part was the lack of consideration given to the question of British Atlantic identity. This is an open question among scholars, as far as I know; that is, the extent to which any given white colonist from Virginia or New York might have regarded a white colonist from Jamaica or Barbados as a foreigner; but while those differences were clearly acknowledged, I would hesitate to assume that they were a big deal to any particular person at the time. It's evident even from these chapters the degree to which people were circulating. I guess I would have liked to see a little more engagement with the issue of imperial identities here although one always hesitates to make such criticisms of EIGHT HUNDRED PAGE BOOKS.

One point of characterization I struggled with a bit was Chernow's description of Hamilton as fearing anarchy; "he would always be an uneasy and reluctant revolutionary," says Chernow (46). Indeed, "Hamilton would have preferred a stately revolution, enacted decorously in courtrooms and parliamentary chambers by gifted orators in powdered wigs" (65). Really? This sat a little awkwardly with the all-out, slash-and-burn rhetoric for me. This guy did not seem worried about disturbing the peace, and he certainly jumps into the war with gusto. However, I was struck by the account Hamilton wrote of the attack on Rivington's print shop for the St Croix newspaper, particularly this: that the mob "put an entire stop to his business, and reduced him at upwards of 50 years of age to the sad necessity of starting the world again" (qtd 69). Chernow describes this as "horror at such mob disorder" and that it is, but I might put a little finer point on it and say that this was a man intimately familiar with how precarious life could be, and what it meant to lose your livelihood. When you're swept up with anger, it's easy to cheer when someone who "deserves it" loses their job or has their business shut down. I wonder if Hamilton was the person who couldn't help but be aware of the long-term suffering that would follow. Would he have preferred a talking revolution? I find that hard to believe, but it seems like an entirely likely outcome of his background in the West Indies that he would be preternaturally conscious of what could be lost, and the need to preserve one's income (or the nation's income). Most people in the 18th century lived fairly precarious lives -- thus the importance of observing conventions and maintaining social networks -- but the West Indies always had a reputation for being particularly brutal for life's losers. Gentlemen with large estates could trust that land would always have value, and rest on a hazy confidence in their own self-sufficiency. Anyone from the West Indies would know that utter ruin and destitution was a real thing and it could happen to you.

So that's the first hundred pages down, and mainly what I've learned is that the musical is delightfully true to Chernow's research. So 700 more pages OR just listen to the musical another fifty times.


Oh fine, I'll keep reading.