Fanfiction or Revisionism? The conundrum at the heart of Hamilton
I, along with many others, watched the musical Hamilton for the first time during the week of 4th of July. I expected to be blown away by it — and I was —but did not expect to have a greater sense of admiration for the founding fathers afterwards. Whatever my public school education instilled in me, in my adult life, I’ve viewed the founding fathers as overrated; they were racist, sexist, elitist slave owners. Their intelligence and ideas, while noteworthy, were not singular and above reproach.
As I watched Hamilton, I began to wonder — were they a bigger deal than I gave them credit for? Should some of my cynicism be replaced with respect? I was unwittingly swept up in the grandeur of it all, how the “eyes of history” were upon them, how what they did still shapes us today…And more insidiously, I began to wonder if my education had glossed over the fact that Alexander Hamilton was not only an immigrant from humble beginnings (he was, although still white), but also an ardent abolitionist (he was not).
So if the musical had me doubting my dismissiveness of the founding fathers, what was the effect on people who already put these men on a pedestal? Many critics have been weighing in on this very question; does the musical glorify the founding fathers, and is this intentional? Is all of the swag and excellence of its cast of color bestowed on the legacies of white men who don’t deserve it, who devalued people who looked like them during their lifetime?
The musical certainly depicts Hamilton (and some of the other founding fathers) as flawed, but does it depict them as racists? Not really. There are a couple of references to Jefferson owning slaves, but he was far from the only founding father who did. Possibly it would be difficult to portray racism with a racebent cast, at least not in a way that wasn’t dissonant or jarring.
Writer Aja Romano at Vox claims “the musical isn’t about what Hamilton, the historical figure, was or was not; any critique that views it from this angle is missing the point.” This raises some questions for me. Can anyone besides Lin Manuel Miranda (the author) definitively say what “the point” of Hamilton was? If we answer no, then Romano’s interpretation is suspect. If we answer yes, then what makes Romano’s interpretation more valid than someone else who argues that the musical is still about the historical figure of Alexander Hamilton (which I don’t really think is a stretch)?
I’m not defending the people who hand-wring about the musical’s historical accuracy for its own sake, because the racebent cast and the anachronistic words they use when they rap/sing are all context clues that the musical is not primarily concerned with historical accuracy. At the same time, the musical does still adhere pretty closely to Alexander Hamilton’s actual biography, so I think it is at least somewhat concerned with getting some history right. Chiefly because it is fascinated with Alexander Hamilton’s life and the founding father’s project in general.
I care about historical accuracy in so far as it sanitizes the history of the founding fathers and valorizes them in a way that bolsters white supremacy and excludes the contributions of people of color. I am certainly not the first to make this argument; playwright Ishmael Reed wrote a play called “The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda” in which “the character of Miranda… is suddenly visited by manifestations of slaves, Native Americans and white indentured servants who were conveniently left out of the book upon which he based his musical: Alexander Hamilton, by historian Ron Chernow. Distraught, Miranda listens as the facts are laid out for him one by one and his preconceived notions about America’s OG Federalist are shattered beyond recognition.” According to Aja Romano’s claim, Reed is simply “missing the point”, because the musical isn’t actually about the real, historical figure of Hamilton.
But it wasn’t only Reed who has critiqued the musical’s representation of the founding fathers. Historian Lyra Monteiro argues that the musical’s racebent casting “gives Hamilton…the ability to say, Oh, we’re not just telling old, white history. This isn’t your stuffy old-school history that’s just praising white people. Look, we’ve got people of color in the cast. This is everybody’s story. Which, it isn’t. It’s still white history. And no amount of casting people of color disguises the fact that they’re erasing people of color from the actual narrative.” I am inclined to agree with this.
This brings me to questions that go beyond Hamilton:
- Who decides the meaning of art, the audience or the author?
- What responsibility does the author have (if any) for the various audience interpretations?
The answer to both will vary from person to person. For the first question, I fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum; I think meaning is derived both from the author’s intent, the audience’s interpretation, and socio-political context. It’s a dialogue between the audience and author. However, if any and all interpretations are valid, it dilutes the meaning of, well, meaning. It is possible for someone to interpret art incorrectly, especially if the text itself doesn’t support it.
However, sometimes the text can support things in spite of the author’s intentions. This is where socio-political context comes in. It’s possible, even likely that Lin Manuel Miranda did not want the musical to sanitize the legacy of the founding fathers or minimize the role of real people of color in history. But I would still view the musical in the context of the Founder’s Chic phenomenon, in which “the roles of specific, prominent individuals [are] at the heart of sweeping narratives of the founding era.” Some historians claim that this “[exaggerates] the importance of individuals, at the expense of understanding the contribution of less-celebrated Americans or the role of broader societal and historical processes.” In this case, it exaggerates the importance of white men at the expense of people of color. If Hamilton takes its place among other media about the founding father’s (particularly in light of Founder’s Chic), from history texts and biographies to historical fiction, what does it add to that tradition? What does it support or subvert? What is that tradition generally characterized by?
Perhaps Lin Manuel Miranda would agree with Aja Romano that who Alexander Hamilton actually was wasn’t the point. But if members of the audience feel as though that is at least part of the point, what then? And if members of the audience come away from the musical with a rehabilitated, strengthened, or sanitized view of the founding fathers, whether Miranda intended that or not, isn’t that something we should still discuss?
I’m by no means saying that the musical should not have been created, or that Lin Manuel Miranda should be cancelled, not at all. I think the musical raises some intriguing and unprecedented questions.
Even Romano’s opinion seems to have shifted from viewing Hamilton as subversive fanfiction, now asking four years later “is Hamilton a brilliant, visionary reframing of the narrative of America, a revisionist apologetic paying undue worship to the Founding Fathers, or an unholy mix of both?” I think it’s both, and even if we love Hamilton, we paradoxically might not love part of that whole. And that’s okay. Even Monteiro said “Hamilton is both a piece of art that troubles me deeply, and a piece of art that sustains me, that gives me life.” At least it’s easier to love something with problematic elements when it’s people of color telling the story, and delivering some of the best broadway performances in recent memory.