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“Hamilton,” History and the Aesthetics of Fan-Fiction

Defenders of “Hamilton” say that it is not meant as a work of history. My question then becomes: why do it about Alexander Hamilton at all? Why not do it about Lin-Manuel Miranda, who has an impressive and praiseworthy story in his own right? I think if you want to make a case about the value of 21st century immigration, using a figure who was objectively anti-immigrant, despite his own background, seems like a passing strange way to do it (let me note that I found it unwatchable, and stopped for that reason; but many of my friends adore it, and I wish them no ill will).

Let us begin with an important note: while Hamilton was clearly different than either Adams or Jefferson, inasmuch as he spent his formative years in the West Indies, to understand him as “an immigrant” in 21st century terms risks an ahistorical analysis. He spoke the language, extremely well (though recent research indicates fluency in French as well), was of British parentage and citizenship, though he did spend much of his life in the Danish West Indies (today’s US Virgin Islands) [I am indebted to the estimable Rev. J.D. Williams for this correction; he is, without a doubt, a deeply knowledgeable scholar of Alexander Hamilton]. At King’s College (Columbia), he mixed with “the best and the brightest” of 18th century middle-colonial society. Miranda’s own story is far more impressive it seems to me than the historical Alexander Hamilton’s.

Likewise, the assertion has been made by the fan-fiction school of history that maybe Hamilton was partly of African descent because he was described as being part Creole, risks serious misunderstanding. It seems to me to mistake the idiosyncratic US use of “creole” to mean a class of free people of color (gens de coleur) in Louisiana (Beyonce, e.g. has ancestors who are this kind of Creole); with the wider use in the Americas, which though elastic, has tended merely to mean “someone who was himself, or his ancestors were, born on this side of the Atlantic.” It is not, in the main, a racial category. Thus, during the rebellion of the republics of South America against the King of Spain, it was the criollo class of elites who led the Independence movement. Or historians talk about “the creolization” of South Carolina’s 18th century slave population, meaning that increasingly, these enslaved people are born in the Americas, not Africa. So applying our particular notions of what “creole” means to the 1770s does more to obscure, and less to illuminate the past. I chose this example because it is exactly the kind detail that gets lost with the aestheticization of history. Indeed, historian Modris Ecksteins has associated the aestheticization of politics with an authoritarian turn..

Ultimately, I don’t think aesthetics trump what actually happened, unless we’re going the full Derrida “there is no such thing as empirical reality” — which I will note is the stated ideology of Karl Rove; the postmodern idea that reality is just a bunch of texts assumed in the idea of the equal validity of fan-fictional and historical-scholarly accounts is not only fallacious on its own grounds, it has been used above all by the political right since the rise of post-modernism, e.g., Rove, in 2004, stating that reality was what his narrative/text said it was — IEDs and insurgents be damned! It troubles me to the extent that, if Miranda knows what he is doing, he is consciously putting forward the Big Money line; if he doesn’t, and just thinks it makes for a good show, then he is their unconscious dupe, which may be worse. Hamilton was against slavery the way a Prius-driving Californian with stocks in Exxon Mobil and Nestle is against global warming — notionally.

Look at a movie like 2008’s “Valkyrie,” starring Tom Cruise, in which credulous Hollywood liberals confused a plot against Hitler by right-wing Prussian colonels into something ethical in the need for a story. That does violence to the past! The Prussian junker class (military aristocracy) were entirely objectionable in their own way, even if they were anti-Nazi (see World War I). Likewise, just inventing a Hamilton you like out of whole cloth, however good the art, seems to me insupportable; portraying a conservative commercial oligarch with Caesarist tendencies and dreams of empire as a figure who was emancipatory is literally the same argument hard-right libertarians make when they argue that Rockefeller and the Robber Barons were agents of freedom. Why not just make a buddy movie about two Pinkerton Detectives who mow down all those alien labor radicals in 1920s West Virginia? What distinguishes that from “Hamilton”, beyond aesthetic quality?

If transformation is the goal, then the slipperiness of “Hamilton” is doubly important, for if anything limits the possibilities of liberation, it is our blindness to ourselves as historical actors, and the actual, not imagined, character of the historical actors who preceded us. These in turn have created the actual conditions from which liberation must be won; therefore understanding the origins of these conditions is of prime importance. I understand the importance of the aesthetic vantage point for the encouragement of dreaming, of not only bread, but flowers, as the Lawrence strikers put it one hundred years ago. But “Hamilton” goes beyond that. Like Oliver Stone’s “JFK”, another work of art that captured the zeitgeist of its time but was dangerous in its inaccuracy, it puts aesthetic values over fidelity to what actually happened. The aestheticization of the historical is a dangerous move, if you ask me, whether it’s Tea Partiers celebrating a past that never was or Miranda distorting one that did actually occur. If we actually wish to change the country Jefferson and Hamilton helped create, then we need to engage with what they actually did.

And I will say this: there is no way Hamilton becomes a hero in any other but an epoch dominated by finance, insurance, and real estate. The same Markt Uber Alles ideology that destroys public schools and then blames the teachers for it speaks, in turn, in dulcet tones through the amiable, and I believe entirely unintentional, propaganda* of Lin-Manuel Miranda.

But perhaps I just don’t get Fan-Fiction. What proponents of this fan-fictional version of history to argue then, is what is often asserted, though never really explicitly: that Fan-Fiction is a better way to achieve Liberation than Historical Inquiry with its — contingent and mediated — respect for facts. I don’t find that persuasive. I believe Liberation will come when: a) historical conditions require it to resolve their own contradictions, as when a 7th chord goes back to the 1; and b) through a careful and considered examination of the conditions that have led to the necessity of Liberation.

And then a new essay is required from all of us: What is Liberation?

Notes.

“Sous les paves, le plage.”**

* Yes, total misrepresentation of the past is a propaganda technique going back to the Aeneid — another great piece of art that served highly political purposes.

** Under the paving stones, the beach.” French graffito of May, 1968.

Ben Cronin holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. His research focuses on ecology, politics, and economic life in Plymouth County, Massachusetts.

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