As a self-professed fan of Hamilton and Lin-Manuel Miranda as well as conscious public historian, I feel obliged to love Hamilton in all its problematic essence. Reviewing it as a case study through this lens of myth, nostalgia, and memory, I’m less curious as a work of “escapist fiction” Allen presents than as a “liberal incremental piece of art” Noonan writes about.
I’m reminded this week of the talk by Rebecca Onion (1:04:55) and a subsequent article, in which she discussed on decontextutalized history on the internet. Onion, who spends a lot of time on the Internet focused on crap history and virality, used the article to discuss the emotional connections to history – particularly the sexual, LGB nature of the founding father fandom on Tumblr.
Onion received a lot of flak from the fandom on which she writes, most notably this bit from publius-esquire:
Rebecca Onion: No amount of stealing my fanart and taking it out of contextualization, or making fun of LGBT+ people for writing queer historical fiction (which you never would have done had people been writing straight ships) will ever erase the fact that I’ve spent hundreds of hours reading dozens upon dozens of books, and know more on this subject than you ever will.
So, as we say in the serious academia world, eat me.
The fans, many of whom are quoted or referenced in the article, took issue with Onion’s portrayal of their work as just fans. Many of these bloggers are active amateur historians or grad students in history; many were performing this type of fandom long before Hamilton ever came along. Many thought that Onion failed to mention that it was these complexities of the Founding Fathers and their contemporaries – not so much in Founders Chic fashion, but in the sense of reclaiming these narratives – that made their work important. And her framing of Hamilton and founding father fandom in relation to crap history made it difficult to view her taking this type of myth-making (or un-mythmaking) seriously.
Transitioning from Onion to Monteiro: I struggled with Monteiro’s piece ever since I first read it last spring – partly because its critiques are accurate. It’s fair to say that slavery doesn’t function actively within Hamilton; it’s fair to say that it actively erases the presence of people of color in Revolutionary America. I might even go further to say that the feminism the show has been associated with has also fallen short.
But I also think that Monteiro fails to recognize some aspects of the story – that critiquing the casting of Eliza Hamilton as “white-passing” and her Broadway stile fails to recognize that this is one particular cast and presentation of the story that has not been carried throughout the production; that the “colorblind casting” of Hamilton’s character actually choses to emphasize an aspect of Hamilton’s ethnicity and the early discrediting around his origins, that the expanded Hamilton universe (most obviously, the mixtape) starts to unpack the question… Thinking of Miranda’s intentions with this story as a concept album rather than a Broadway performance, Monteiro’s criticisms of the show point more to the issue of medium in presentation rather than diving into the stories itself.
But linking Monteiro’s essay with The Atlantic’s re: the Supreme Court, I wonder if her final question is true. If we see Hamilton and the story of America’s founding as fundamental to understanding the politics and interpretations of the structures through which politics in this country operate, isn’t it entirely important that we understand these processes of myth making and reallocation of ownership of the republic? Doesn’t asking us to acknowledge Hamilton’s origin story as a Caribbean “immigrant” and to view his experience through this lens start to challenge the ways in which we look at race relations in this century? And could it be said that if founding father fandom has started using these histories as a way to raise awareness around these other types of histories, Even if we’re interested as historians in chipping away “at the exclusive past typified by the cult of the founders,” doesn’t Hamilton and the physical presence of people of color on the stage start to create a default experience of the ways in which we view history? Hamilton doesn’t try to celebrate the real histories of people and color, but it is showing ways in which we can challenge the faith in history that has been created in public environments.
I don’t feel qualified to answer these questions, or even to propose them – because, to be fair, I’m a) very conscious of the fact that I’m viewing Hamilton very much in the way Noonan does, and b) aware that I’m interested in very different questions re: Hamilton than Monteiro is. But in light of Glassberg’s interest in intermediaries and the dissemination of public histories over time, I’m thinking of Hamilton as a framework for tackling nostalgia, rather than it playing directly into the hands of American myth.