I’m really curious about the reaction of the likely middle aged history buffs who recently went to reserve a copy of the Alexander Hamilton biography they had heard about only to find that the copy at their library has a reserve list of 50+.
I decided to read the hulking 800+ page (adjusted for citation pages of which there are around 90) biography of the United State’s first national secretary of the treasury for the same reason that I’m betting the majority of those 50 people who have it on reserve are; Lin-Manuel Miranda’s break out musical Hamilton: An American Musical.
It’s rather unlikely that I would have ever picked the book up, or even known about it, were it not for this musical. I read my first biography only last year, having always favored fiction. And to be perfectly honest, I always considered myself an Anglophile. I loathed the one American Lit class I had to take in college, and every history class I took after junior year in high school was European History. Coming from an Appalachian situated town our US History classes tended to favor focus on the Civil War. And to be honest, I distinctly remember being mad about the Revolutionary War in middle school; I was thick in my Harry Potter phase and mad we threw away the chance to have British accents over tea.
That being said, looking at the brick that laid before me was a bit daunting. Without the musical I definitely would have been more scared to conquer it. How interesting could the First National Secretary of the Treasury be? And that being determined, how much filler did this guy have to push into this book to get it over 700 pages? I am here to assure you, musical bias aside, Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow is a spectacular biography and above that an amazing read.
The book certainly owes this to the two men at the center of it. Alexander Hamilton did so much more than he is typically given credit for; making the banks and getting shot by the VP. If you’ve listened to the musical you only know a part of it. His tragic, humble beginnings, his rise during the revolutionary war, his tireless ambition in George Washington’s cabinet, and eventual self destruction in the public eye. Lin-Manuel did a wonderful job of bringing Hamilton’s life to stage, but the scope in which Chernow dives into is, well honestly, ridiculous. For reference, he starts the true biography by describing the formation of the volcanic island that Hamilton called home as a child.
The 700 pages of this biography wouldn’t be half as captivating if you as a reader couldn’t tell that the author truly admired and appreciated their subject. Chernow’s subtle excitement for Hamilton, his schemes and actions, propels the reader. It’s as if you’ve sat down with Chernow at a bar or cafe and he starts with “Listen to what this guy named Alex I know did, you wont believe it.” You could imagine him smiling as he wrote of Hamilton’s exploits and it endears you all the more to his central figure as well as himself.
(Both men’s admiration and respect of Eliza Hamilton, the leading lady of their stories, is a special treat as well.)
I can understand the benefits and appeal to a biography entirely without bias, but my personal preference is for the author’s point of view to come through. Even if I don’t agree with it, I’d rather the author take a stance than present the facts dry. For this matter, Chernow does an excellent job of saving his opinion until having fully presented the facts of a matter. Still, he has an opinion, and I find it refreshing.
As is Chernow’s style of prose, his choice of words not overtly sophisticated to the point that he drones, yet still appropriate for the subject matter. Only twice I found myself unable to concentrate on the words; the minor details of the banking system cannot hold my attention, even from Chernow. Additionally, the choice to divide the book practically evenly through forty-three chapters (plus prologue and epilogue) is a detail many would over look in assisting a reader along, but I found it easier to keep turning pages with a milestone so often in sight.
While under different circumstances I would have never picked up this novel, I am now eternally glad I did. Before I even finished I had begun thoughts of re-reading. I would thank Alexander Hamilton for living the truly inspiring life he did. I would thank Ron Chernow for his tireless work to bring Alexander Hamilton’s life to the written word and the masses who would read it. And I would thank Lin-Manuel Miranda for bringing both men’s stories into the spotlight, and bringing me to them. Whether a fan of the musical, history, or just in search of a compelling story I would suggest reading Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow.