Is the World Wide Enough?: SHEAR Takes on “Hamilton”

It took two years, but my children finally became addicted to the Hamilton soundtrack. I played it for them on the way to the waterpark a couple Saturdays ago and they have wanted to listen to nothing else since. It seemed fitting, then, that the most recent issue of Journal of the Early Republic has a roundtable focused on the play, its meaning, and its shortcomings. (For some reason, JSTOR and MUSE don’t have the issue up yet, and the JER website doesn’t feature the TOC; I had access through my university’s EBSCO account.) All but one of the entries (there are six in total) are presentations from last year’s SHEAR conference. Besides a brief introduction by editor extraordinaire Catherine Kelly, the other contributors are Joanne Freeman, Andrew Schocket, Heather Nathans, Marvin McAllister, Benjamin Carp, and Nancy Isenberg. I strongly recommend it.

As with any roundtable with so many essays, it would be a fool’s quest to try to summarize them all here. But here are a few of my favorite thoughts:

  • Joanne Freeman, a Hamilton expert who has certainly been a (deserving) winner in this Hamilton moment, placed the play within the long trajectory of Hamilton’s image in American culture. “From the dawning of the republic to the present day,” she explains, generation after generation has created a Founding narrative that served their needs, with Hamilton’s reputation rising and falling accordingly” (258). At various times condemned as an example of federal overreach and corruption and heralded as a visionary for the modern federal state, the story of Hamilton is the story of American political culture. In the Age of Obama, the celebration of “an immigrant striver” reflects its broader context (259). However, at every moment, especially the present, this leads to overlooking other key features of Hamilton’s past, especially his elitism. It is up to historians to “take full advantage of the spotlight” and teach the complexity and paradoxes of the nation’s founding (262).
  • Andrew Schocket is a noted expert of America’s “founders culture,” and he situates Hamilton within a genre he calls “American Revolution rebooted” (264). This genre, he argues, is a conversation that has taken place over the past few decades over our founders and what they mean for the present. Seen in this context, Schocket argues that the play is not nearly as, well, revolutionary as sometimes depicted. In fact, there are other contributions to the genre that are more revolutionary when it comes to race and gender.
  • Heather Nathans, a professor of drama, shows that Hamilton is far from the first play to depict the guy as as a key character. In fact, there were at least nine dramas just before the Civil War that invoked Hamilton as either a character or by reputation (272). And a constant feature in these works: the complex engagement with slavery. “Miranda is just one of many contemporary playwrights who have struggled with how to re-present slavery’s violent past,” Nathans explains (276).
  • A specialist in African American theater, Marvin McAllister directly addresses racial representation. More than just “fan fiction,” as some observers have argued, McAllister says that Hamilton presents “an aspirational vision of what the nation could be” (283). Such a vision is outside of history, of course, even as it appropriates history for its own purposes. But this “exciting idealization of America” obscures the real struggles that have taken place (288). It will be up to future scholars, dramatists, and activists to build on the idealistic vision.
  • But is Hamilton historically accurate? Benjamin Carp says that might be the wrong question to ask. Attendees should know that it’s not accurate history–the characters are breaking out into song and dance, after all. Rather than wondering if it is “good history,” we should rather ask, “is it good for historians?” (292) At its best, the play asks intriguing questions regarding how history and myth are constructed. It is left to historians to take advantage of the doors that are opened.
  • Nancy Isenberg, as you might expect, is not as optimistic. She worries that by merely celebrating the play, historians are abdicating their duty to hold popular memory accountable. She says the historical errors in Hamilton are not peripheral, but “massive” (296). The play distorts Hamilton’s personality and, especially, his commitment to power structures. (I especially enjoyed her discussion of the “faux-feminism” politics in the play [299].) Hamilton is not helping the promotion of accurate and useful history. “Americans ought to feel uncomfortable about their collective past,” she concludes. “We look foolish otherwise, as cheerleaders of American exceptionalism” (303).

I appreciated Isenberg’s critiques, though at times I wondered if she was constructing a strawman. The only people she cites for uncritically celebrating Hamilton are not historians, and there have been plenty of scholars who have offered nuanced critiques of the play that have helped shape public discussion. That includes Isenberg‘s essays, as well as those by Annette Gordon-Reed and, especially, Lyra Monteiro. (I assigned the latter’s provocative and smart essay in my undergraduate class last Fall.) But while I fall more on the side of Benjamin Carp and Marvin McAllister, who said he welcomes, “without question…the dramaturgical and representational perfect storm” (281), I really appreciate Isenberg critical stance. At the least, it provokes discussion—in a very persuasive way!—which is the purpose.

I’m currently putting together an Age of Hamilton class for next Spring Semester to coincide with the play arriving in Houston. I look forward to assigning this roundtable, and I’m sure it will prompt great dialogue.

Happy reading!

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Primitive Wallflower says:

    It seems like the simplest explanation for the intensity of Isenberg’s criticism is, well, she’s written books praising Jefferson, Madison, and Burr. She just seems like the Yang to Chernow’s Ying in this case. I’ve found other Jefferson scholars like AGR to be far more balanced and fair, even when they ultimately critiqued some face of the musical.

    Like

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