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Martha Nussbaum’s reading of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton makes what is at once a formal and an historical point (not to mention a moral one). By casting the ultimately fatal rivalry between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr as a reworking of the Choice of Hercules, Nussbaum draws out the musical’s allegorical dimensions so that flesh-and-blood historical figures become avatars of political virtues and vices. Yet in taking this seemingly formal turn, she also vaults us directly into the lives of the founding fathers who, as she reminds us, often modeled their endeavors after classical examples. When the men of the founding era acted with confidence in the rightness of their aims, they did so in the belief that their actions had the sanction of established authority. Their apparent novelty lay in their awareness of themselves as renewing preexisting principles and conforming to approved forms bequeathed to them from the Classical and Enlightenment periods.
Hamilton can be seen as staging a battle royal of forms, in which romance, comedy, and tragedy vie for pride of place, only to concede defeat.
In counterpoint to Nussbaum’s observations, though, I want to explore another way in which matters both formal and historical intertwine, in Hamilton and in the aesthetic history in which it participates. Important to this consideration is not a delineation of how Hamilton corresponds to clearly discernible forms, but rather an account of how Miranda’s musical enacts the sometimes worrying, sometimes exhilarating possibility that perhaps no aesthetic form may be adequate to the idea of democracy that animates our nation’s history.
As one of the earliest foreign observers of U.S. society, the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville wrote:
When the democratic classes rule the stage, they introduce as much license in the matter of treating subjects as in the choice of them. As the love of drama is, of all literary tastes, that which is most natural to democratic nations, the number of authors and of spectators, as well as of theatrical representations, is constantly increasing amongst these communities. A multitude composed of elements so different, and scattered in so many different places, cannot acknowledge the same rules or admit to the same laws. No concurrence is possible amongst judges so numerous, who know not when they may meet again; and therefore each pronounces his own sentence on the piece. If the effect of democracy is generally to question the authority of all literary rules and conventions, on the stage it abolishes them altogether, and puts in their place nothing but the whim of each author and of each public.
Of course, the identification of this nation with the idea or ideal of democracy can only be made with severe qualification. Indeed, one might assert with similar force and justification that inequality, intolerance, and exclusion are as American as their opposing virtues, and that the stage, as Tocqueville describes it, is less a reflection of the social order from which it emerges than an ironic commentary on it. The ideal implied by Tocqueville’s account could be said to dissolve in the face of a troubling reality: to the extent that American society has moved toward inclusiveness, it has done so via an authoritative rebuke to caprice and license—backed with military force if need be—to ensure that the rights and privileges of citizenship extend equally and everywhere to everyone.
Nonetheless Tocqueville’s aesthetic claim rings clear: no claim of adequate formal correlation to the nation’s roiling social and political life can secure itself against severe challenge. Indeed Miranda’s Hamilton can be seen as staging a battle royal of forms, in which romance, comedy, and tragedy vie for pride of place, only to concede to Tocqueville’s admonition that the nation’s democratic aspirations undercut the authority of any story that purports to stand as our official or agreed-upon national narrative.
In the eyes of Ralph Ellison, the tragedy was the very belief that America actually constituted a worthy object of desire.
One might further note that while Tocqueville highlighted drama for reasons specific to the early nineteenth century, there is no reason to confine to drama the idea of democracy’s corrosiveness to aesthetic form. Poetry, music, and the novel are also subject to and participants in this process. The decision of the 2016 Nobel Prize committee to bestow Bob Dylan with the Nobel Prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition” might be taken as emblematic of the idea that what America does to any tradition—even its own—is deform it.
And when one considers American novels, the situation is similar. Over the decades one literary historian after another has opined that the most influential instances of American prose fiction were more interested in sending their protagonists outside of the boundaries of existing American society than in having them explore the inevitable entanglements to which any social order gives rise. As such, these fictions might better be described as romances than as novels, in that they are centered on a questing hero for whom no available social form can match the demands of ambition and desire. On this account, once again, the American “form” might be “anti-form” because its essence is dissatisfaction with existing forms.
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One could argue that the intended literary genre of the U.S. political experiment is comedy, which is to say, the goal of the nation is to bring into accord individual ambition and social structure. The true American hero, in these terms, is not the questing individual whose desires inevitably outrun available social forms and roles, but rather the individual who finds fulfillment within the nation. And to the extent that Miranda’s Hamilton is a romantic figure—in the various meanings of that term, always restlessly pushing for something more, always attracting the sexual interest of the women around him—the direction of his desire is toward society rather than away from it. Coming from poverty in the hurricane-wracked West Indies, Hamilton knows what it is to be outside. If he wants to fly above his station, he wants to do so within rather than outside of the society of a rising nation. When in “My Shot” he asserts, “I’m just like my country, / I’m young, scrappy and hungry,” he affirms a hope that there can be an identification of individual desire and national form. If the form of the nation is that of state rising from obscurity to power, then it is quite possible that, say, the poor immigrant becoming rich and powerful reflects the U.S. story rather than strains against it.
American exceptionalism is only sustainable if one willfully forgets that this comic order requires a scapegoat.
Yet it is also undeniable that Hamilton is as much about the thwarting, and the perils, of desire as it is about the joys of fulfillment. Miranda is clearly interested in exploring the tragic dimensions of a nation that, despite its promises, has never quite succeeded in matching ambition to reality. If tragedy is an account of the hero’s downfall through fate, the will of the gods, or the hero’s own shortcomings via hubris, frailty, or some other flaw that stands in the way of the desired goal, Hamilton’s life arguably conforms to it. He rises from destitution in the Caribbean to political and romantic success, helps to found the United States, becomes a hero on the battlefield, invents America’s financial system, then suffers public humiliation brought on by his own lack of self-control, which in part causes the death of his only son, puts a ceiling on his political ascent (“Never gon’ be President now”), and leads to his death at the hands of his lifelong rival, Burr.
The pathos of Hamilton’s personal losses—his son’s death and the devastation he wreaks in his marriage—is undeniable. But when it comes to his political ambitions, what does it require of us to see his failure to become president (if that was the ideal form of his desire) as tragic?
In the eyes of the novelist Ralph Ellison, the tragic dimension of American life could not be found in any individual story of thwarted political ambition. Rather the tragedy was the very belief that America actually constituted a worthy object of desire. To Ellison American exceptionalism was only sustainable if one willfully forgot that this comic order required a scapegoat, upon whom the vices and failures of the social order were projected. In other words, the American dream rested on the exploitation and exclusion of others—usually people of color, though certainly not exclusively. In reflecting on the interrelation of the romantic, comic, and tragic in American literature, Ellison observes:
the rising American industrialists of the late nineteenth century were to rediscover what their European counterparts had learned a century before: that the good man Friday was as sound an investment for [Robinson] Crusoe morally as he was economically, for not only did Friday allow Crusoe to achieve himself by working for him, but by functioning as a living scapegoat to contain Crusoe’s guilt over breaking with the institutions and authority of the past, he made it possible to exploit even his guilt economically. The man was one of the first missionaries. Mark Twain was alive to this irony and refused such an easy (and dangerous) way out. Huck Finn’s acceptance of the evil implicit in his ‘emancipation’ of Jim represents Twain’s acceptance of his personal responsibility for the condition of society. This was the tragic face behind the comic mask.
In other words, in Ellison’s estimation the best American literature acknowledges that to wear the comic mask with integrity—that is, the mask of convergence between individual aspiration and moral rectitude—one must acknowledge that it is only a mask. What lies beneath is the dark face of the individuals one has exploited—and in some way that face is also one’s own.
Although Ellison believed that his chosen form, the novel, provided the best literary resource for representing the complexities of the fractious American story, he also suggested that it was in the African American musical idiom of the blues that one could find a form that might be adequate to American complexity. The blues, he argued,
is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. As a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.
In Ellison’s view, the blues encodes not a forgetting or exiling of past troubles, but rather a transmuting of them into lyricism that enables the possibility of living with them. The “feeling of the blues,” Ellison asserts, is, “perhaps, as close as Americans can come to expressing the spirit of tragedy.”
It is almost as if the story of America’s nonwhite citizens no longer functions as the tragic underside of the American narrative.
As everyone reading these words already knows, however, the musical idiom that informs Hamilton is not the blues, but hiphop. And Miranda’s description of hiphop does not so much align it with Ellison’s understanding of this blues so much as it places it in counterpoint. In Miranda’s view, as he writes in the book about the musical he coauthored with Jeremy McCarter, hiphop “is, at bottom, the music of ambition, the soundtrack of defiance, whether the force that must be defied is poverty, cops, racism, rival rappers, or all of the above.” So that, despite the dimension of protest in Miranda’s account, by making hiphop “the music of ambition,” he also identifies it with the American idiom, making it the language of American defiance. This identification is brought home in one of the lighter moments of the musical, “Farmer Refuted,” which is based on Hamilton’s response to the loyalist Samuel Seabury. In that song we hear a juxtaposition of hiphop styling and waltz tempo with rapid-fire lyrics that express American defiance. McCarter tells us that in putting this song together, Miranda wanted to produce “the jauntiest tune he could imagine for a British loyalist to sing: drums, fifes, harpsichord—‘getting my Bach on, essentially,’ in Lin’s words. This was pretty much what an audience expected a musical about the nation’s founding to sound like. But Lin added a hip-hop twist.” American defiance, then, is cast in the style of black and Latino musical stylings. “Musical theater,” Lin asserts, “is a mongrel art form.”
But of course the most apparently “defiant” move that Hamilton makes is in its casting. The founding fathers are played by nonwhite actors. To appreciate how significant this turn is, one need only look to what has been one of the most indelible elements of American drama for most of its history: the tradition of blackface minstrelsy, in which the possibility of black people as full members of the polity could emerge only as travesty and farce. Writing in the early 1970s, the literary historian Nathan Huggins observed:
the cultural phenomenon of the minstrel travesty reaches deep into the racial pathology of Americans. For what white men in blackface objectified on stage was the conceptualization of the Negro as naturally foolish in roles that white men envisioned themselves playing in real life. A black man as mayor, senator, policemen, or clergyman was utter fantasy. . . . The white common man, whatever his distance from power, could sense his belonging to a civilized, democratic society to the degree that he could see the Negro as ludicrous in it.
Against this history, one might expect Miranda’s casting decision to have been the musical’s most audacious move. Indeed, the historian Ron Chernow, the author of the definitive biography of Hamilton and the scholar with whom Miranda consulted while writing the musical, was initially “shocked” by the proposition. But according to McCarter, within “five minutes” the historian became “what he calls a ‘militant’ defender of the idea that actors of any race could play the Founding Fathers.” Chernow’s response has been characteristic. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the musical’s reception is that Miranda’s casting decision has been virtually noncontroversial. It is almost as if the story of America’s nonwhite citizens no longer functions as the tragic underside of the American narrative—as if the structural relationship that Ellison describes between the mask of American identity and the face behind the mask has disappeared, replaced by the idea that now all faces are fungible and any one will do as well in place of another.
Or to put the matter slightly differently, in portraying the founding fathers, Hamilton’s actors could also be seen as doing little more than playing themselves. As Ellison’s protagonist in the novel Invisible Man (1952) intones in the story’s epilogue, the responsibility of affirming the nation’s principles had devolved upon those who had been “brutalized and sacrificed” in the name of the very ideals that had failed to protect them. The paradox that Ellison was trying to assert was that this experience of rejection and exclusion had not placed the victims of the nation’s shortcomings outside of its principles. Rather it had transformed them into authoritative voices for those principles because, according to Ellison’s novel, black Americans “were older than” their white fellow citizens “in the sense of what it took to live in the world with others,” which in social terms is what democracy may be said to be all about. So, when the cast members of Hamilton advised then vice-president-elect Mike Pence, who attended a performance of the musical last November, of their “hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us,” they were perhaps expressing the hope that the “mongrel stage” could at long last voice the nation’s principles in affirmation and not as parody.
Kenneth Warren is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor of English at the University of Chicago. His scholarship and teaching focus on American and African American literature from the late nineteenth century through the middle of the twentieth century. His books include Black and White Strangers: Race and American Literary Realism (Chicago, 1993) and So Black and Blue: Ralph Ellison and the Occasion of Criticism (Chicago, 2003).
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