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.


  1. "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?" haha this made me laugh. I mean, maaaybe he would have been like "hey my grandfather also married someone named Elizabeth. Huh. That's interesting, I guess. Now, back to creating a new financial system..."

    I like all the points you're making about Chernow talking about perceptions of the time and maaaaaaybe he's right but also evidence that he's off the mark, maybe to make Hamilton look better? Cos I mean, he clearly loves the guy. Almost as much as Ham loves Laurens.

  2. Yes, it's difficult to place this book in one particular genre. It's history, it's non-fiction, but not quite academic. Is pop-history a thing?

    ...and did you just compare the trendiness of dueling to mason jars? Hahaha - I just imagined scrolling past "daring dueling tips" on my pinterest page! Or a falling victim to a click-bait article titled "10 duels you won't want to miss this Saturday on ESPN!"

  3. "In other words, it might have been "ancient" but it was also trendy. Like mason jars."