- Historians on Hamilton: How a blockbuster musical is restaging America's past ed. by Renee C. Romano and Claire Bond Potter
Renee C. Romano and Claire Bond Potter make clear the aim of this enjoyable volume of essays from the outset: they believe that historians need to take Lin-Manuel Miranda's multiple award–winning musical Hamilton seriously because its huge popularity amongst audiences—from politicians and high-school students to teachers and historians themselves—has already demonstrated its enormous potential to shape what people know and understand about one of America's founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, and the era of the American Revolution.
Comprising fifteen critical essays, the volume is divided into three "Acts," focusing on script, stage and audience. Act I, "The Script," features work on adaptation, contemporary politics, gender and race. Lyra D. Monteiro's "Race-Conscious Casting and the Erasure of the Black Past" stands out. Addressing Hamilton's multiracial casting, Monteiro argues that the narrative nevertheless focuses on the deeds of great White men, and by doing so contributes to the silencing of the presence and contributions of people of colour. Monteiro argues that the musical actively erases the presence and role of people of colour and downplays slavery, stating, "here there is only space for white heroes" (66). Leslie M. Harris's "Slavery in New York in the Age of Hamilton" takes the debate in a further direction, dismantling Hamilton's so-called ultimate immigrant story by addressing the nature of forced and free migration during Hamilton's era, focusing on the labour of enslaved Africans in the city and the implications of New York's gradual emancipation law, passed in 1779.
Act II, "The Stage," questions how Hamilton intersects with modern American culture and politics, both on and off Broadway. Michael O'Malley's take on money and federal power in "The Ten-Dollar Founding Father" is an interesting starting point, in which the author explores the relationship between money, value, nationalism and history through the prism of Hamilton's success. Further work by David Waldstreicher and Jeffrey L. Pasley examines Hamilton's place amongst the more conservative, elitefocused "Founders Chic," part of a trend of popular biographies aimed at the general public which celebrate the American founding though celebratory narratives in which racial and class politics are undermined. Act III, "The Audience," is worth considering for any historian interested in harnessing popular culture as a means to reach a wider audience. Jim Cullen's work does just this, and juxtaposes pedagogy and Hamilton, arguing that popular culture can be used to close gaps—of generation, knowledge and identity—more effectively than any other mediating force. In "Hamilton as a People's History" Joseph M. Adelman looks beyond the musical's historical errors and omissions and focuses on the broader significance of the show's success. Adelman points out that historians should critique Hamilton's choices between fact and fiction, but that Hamilton is nevertheless a model example of people's history, in which retellings of the past come from amongst the American people, rather than from the professional historian. For Adelman, Hamilton's strength comes from its emphasis that we cannot fully know the past, or create a single narrative from it. Rather, the musical offers a perspective on history without claiming to be scholarly, and thus becomes part of a long tradition of artistic and fictional depictions of America's past which has resonated deeply with the public.
The editors of this volume argue that Hamilton strikes at the heart of what historians do: the musical makes clear that history is not simply a matter of facts or truths presented in the right order. Rather, it is an act of interpretation, actively constructed by whoever is serving as historian. The closing song of Hamilton asks, "Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?," and in this question we are reminded of the work of Laura Ann Stoler, Clare Anderson, and Lucy Frost and Hamish Maxwell-Stewart,i all of which...