A Mind at Work

June 27, 2016

When I was seventeen a hurricane / destroyed my town. / I didn’t drown. / I couldn’t seem to die. / I wrote my way out, / wrote everything down as far I could see. / I wrote my way out of hell. / I wrote my way to revolution. / I was louder than the crack in the bell. / I wrote Eliza love letters until she fell. / I wrote about The Constitution and defended it well. / And in the face of ignorance and resistance, / I wrote financial systems into existence. / And when my prayers to God were met with indifference, / I picked up a pen, I wrote my own deliverance. (II.13)

Animating History

One of the great feats of derring-do achieved by Lin-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton the Musical is to make Alexander Hamilton’s frenzied literary mind accessible and exciting – this fanatically popular musical is deeply about words! And about writing as creation. For those among us (probably most among us) who find what was written in the late 18th century, by the nation’s greatest political and constitutional minds, to be like post-holing across a glacier (just really not worth it, not matter how beautiful the view from the other side), this is no trivial achievement!

Miranda’s Hamilton uses contemporary discourse to connect his audience emotionally to a profound moment in America history. Hamilton, Burr, Jefferson, Washington, Angelica, and Eliza – all speak and sing to us across a range of modern dialects, colloquialisms, and referents, none of which would obviously have any meaning for anyone living in the 18th century. Miranda puts the burden on history to bend toward us, rather than require us to bend toward history!

Obviously, use of anachronistic language risks distorting or misrepresenting the historical record. But because Miranda layers his story on top of Ron Chernow’s impeccably researched Hamilton biography, the effect is to animate the story as we know it to be, rather than create an animation that bears no resemblance to the historical reality. Hamilton is no Disney production. This is an exciting way to bring history to life!

Let’s explore some of Miranda’s animation methods.

Hip Hop Stylings

Cuz I will pop chick a pop these cops till I’m free! (I.2)

Miranda’s point of departure for the musical’s historical sensibility is contemporary hip hop, an urban, largely Afro-American medium entirely dependent on word-play and rhythmic stylings.

I’m John Laurens in the place to be! / Two pints o’ Sam Adams, but I’m workin’ on three, uh! / Those redcoats don’t want it with me! / Cuz I will pop chick a pop these cops till I’m free! (I.2)

In Hamilton, hip hop delivers the musical energy that transports us back to the late 18th century, giving the drama its unique personality, and it is largely that energy which allows/requires us to perceive words as the basis of personal action and of historical agency, with the self-assertion and ego-centrism familiar to hip hop aficionados closely associated in Hamilton the Musical with our national founding acts.

I am the A-l-e-x-a-n-d / e-r-we are-meant to be… / a colony that runs independently. (I.2)

Perhaps less obvious, but potentially far more salient for establishing the metahistorical significance of Hamilton the Musical, is the inclusive generosity of hip hop as a sampling medium. In Hamilton, Miranda himself borrows freely from (and acknowledges) music authored by Rodgers and Hammerstein and by Gilbert and Sullivan, along with songs written and produced by a variety of hip hop artists, most notably Notorious B.I.G.’s Ten Crack Commandments.

Hip hop is protean, lacking a musical center and therefore requiring no formal margins or boundaries (in the musical, Burr assigns the protean label to Hamilton). The interactions between musical styles and genres is particular, specific, and partial, but for those reasons also flexible, surprising, and innovative – a guerrilla form of contemporary music that aligns quite nicely with the nimble, shape-shifting, complex, but largely non-authoritarian and non-centralized inceptions of the American Revolution. From this lens, the traditional top-down and exclusive view of the Revolution as the historical property of white male elites slips away almost without our noticing. The Revolution, suddenly, something that belongs to all of us.

Rise Up

Why do you write like you’re running out of time? (I.23)

Miranda makes Alexander Hamilton’s active mind the centerpiece of the personal story – the biography standing in for the national history. Alexander Hamilton’s prodigious literary output reflected his political passion, yes, but also served as vehicle for fulfilling his personal sense of destiny, his manic drive to rise up. And while one lesson here is really that most improbable, transformative acts of creation require from their principal creators this sense of destiny, and urgency, the more salient and specific insight Miranda communicates to his audience concerns Alexander Hamilton, himself, contesting the vanishingly small amount of time available to him to accomplish everything that needed to be accomplished, leading to a pure fusion of thought and action. Words don’t simply represent the sampled, edited, selective output of Alexander Hamilton’s mind – his words are his mind, ushering forth in real time with cascading, transformative impact unique even among the stellar minds of rival founders of the American republic.

I’m lookin’ for a mind at work. (I.5)

The emotional impact of Hamilton the Musical largely emerges from an audience awareness that perhaps it is actually words that propel forward revolutions, not warfare. In the musical, the revolution unfolding in New York City is mostly a revolution of ideas and principles seeking almost literally to birth themselves. The fabulous Schuyler sisters, slumming downtown in 1776, sensing that history is happening in Manhattan, and looking for a mind at work, are searchin for an urchinwho can give them ideals. And so it matters enormously, for how we perceive Hamilton, but even more for how we perceive politics and revolutions, that his sex appeal for the Schuyler sisters, who are captivated by his intelligent eyes, is presented to us largely as a matter of his inner brilliance (and not his hunger-pang frame) (I.11)

From the start, then, the musical storyline makes clear that Alexander Hamilton – who reads every treatise on the shelf – conforms fully to the zeitgeist of the American political and cultural revolution/revelation, and in some ways represent its apotheosis. Hamilton himself sings, between all the bleedin’ ‘n fightin’ I’ve been readin’ n writin’. (I.3) Clearly Hamilton’s own youthful aspirations to achieve immortality through battlefield martyrdom (that destiny instead falling upon his close friend John Laurens) often overrode his commitment to reading and writing. However, his active mind, and post-Revolution turn toward politics, ultimately required Hamilton to almost exclusively read and write.

Single Combat

You must be out of your Goddamn mind! (II.7)

We all know the fate awaiting Alexander Hamilton. In Miranda’s musical interpretation of his life, prefigurations of personal and political violence (specifically duels involving John Laurens and his son Philip) foreshadow Hamilton’s own demise. But these prefigurations also spotlight the honor/shame mandate rooting itself in the national mind (ironically) during this era of Enlightenment. This cultural and psychological mandate required men to defend their honor (or the honor of those near to them) at any hint of disrespect from others.

As his borrowing from Ten Crack Commandments indicates, Miranda is surely aware of the power these scenes of single-combat will exercise over those in our own century who witness cycles of violence and retaliation in minority communities, psychologically a perilous and primitive condition in which young men (or boys) sacrifice their bodies to safeguard at all costs fragile structures of the self. And while the circumstances are obviously not fully analogous – duels themselves were highly scripted and choreographed, with many opportunities to slide away from a terminal event, the connections are sufficiently real to claim the attention of contemporary audiences.

And so, let’s accept this backdrop of threat and danger triggered by the need to respond to any challenge, real or not, significant or not, with a call to arms. One of the great juxtapositions of the musical occur when Miranda creates battle rap scenes which offer up an alternative, language-driven framework for disputation as a form of mass entertainment, encouraging disrespect and the art of the insult, with diminished threat of repercussions or retaliation.

A civics lesson from a slaver. Hey neighbor, / Your debts are paid cuz you don’t pay for labor. (II.2)

In Hamilton, Cabinet Battles between Jefferson and Hamilton, both of which emphasize the difficulties of governing (the first focused on the national debt and the second considering whether to aid France in its war with Britain), sketch an alternative foundation for managing conflict and disagreement to violence, with its ultimate claims upon the body.

We signed a treaty with a King whose head is now in a basket. / Would you like to take it out and ask it? / “Should we honor our treaty, King Louis’ head?” / “Uh… do whatever you want, I’m super dead.” (II.7)

The Cabinet Battles accurately communicate the intense dislike Hamilton and Jefferson felt for each other – they were never friends and associates like Hamilton and Burr. In the end, however, Hamilton and Jefferson somehow understood each other, and could accommodate each other and leave room for each other, while Burr and Hamilton, operating outside of this framework and exposed fully to the honor / shame imperatives of the underlying culture, could not.

Writing History

Who lives, who dies, who tells your story? (I.19)

Hamilton the Musical isolates and elevates the emotional need to author one’s life story. Hamilton himself – who writes like tomorrow won’t arrive, like he needs it to survive, ev’ry second he’s alive (I.23) – personally illustrates powerful connections between words (as the substance of authored stories about oneself and one’s nation) and public authority, which ultimately derives not just from the monopoly of force, but more profoundly from control of the narratives by which we live and through which we understand ourselves.

In this sense, Hamilton drives home the personal meaning of history, generally, which is that it is ultimately something you write, not make (or perhaps something you can make only by writing). If your achievements are not remembered, if they do not influence the thinking and the actions of others in the future, can one say they are real? Did they ever happen? Did you exist?

These are questions that plagued Hamilton, and that typically afflict generations for whom eschatological religion and the condition and status of a personal soul matter little. Death is the specter one tries (while aware success can only be fleeting) to outrun.

I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory / when’s it gonna get me? / in my sleep? Seven feet ahead of me? / comin’, do I turn or do I let it be? / See, I never thought I’d live past twenty. / Where I come from some get half as many. / Ask anybody why we livin’ fast and we laugh, reach for a flask, / we have to make this moment last, that’s plenty. (I.3)

The fatalism of these words will resonate for minority, urban youth (and probably for all 21st-century youth), whose own experiences growing up are largely the lens Miranda uses for imagining and connecting to American history, with hip hop itself specifically a medium for translating one’s personal history in defiant narrative terms that explicitly make the case for one’s own existence.

Rapping into darkness achieves nothing – connecting with others is the only way to cement one’s own immortality – to matter, to prove one existed. Nation-building itself is ultimately the most transcendent form of immortality, however – establishing precepts, laws, and institutions that endure independently of any clay-footed human. Hamilton soars beyond the local and egocentric awareness of conventional hip hop to assert that the most enduring form of personal story-writing occurs only when in the act of writing one’s own story, one also, and principally, is writing the nation’s story. The nation imbued with self, not standing apart from self.