The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

"In the Room Where it Happens": An Evening with Ron Chernow

So you can catch Ron Chernow in the above clip rapping a small bit of the opening number to Hamilton. I got to hear him do a big chunk of it tonight, as he spoke with Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer prior to being presented with the 2016 Empire State Archives and History Award.

The evening was splendid, from the reception beforehand, where I met Chernow, to the end where he signed my newly acquired copy of Washington: A Life and of Alexander Hamilton. When we spoke I told him that he had cost me a lot of money,as his Alexander Hamilton had induced me to buy all seven volumes of John Church Hamilton Life of his father. He asked me, "Have you read it?" I answered, "I've started it." He gave me the smile of one fellow sufferer to another. His biography of Hamilton also induced me to buy Burr's letters. He smiled at that, and I get it. As Chernow describes the Burr letters:
It is puzzling that Aaron Burr is sometimes classified among the founding fathers. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Franklin, and Hamilton all left behind papers that run to dozens of thick volumes, packed with profound ruminations. They fought for high ideals. By contrast, Burr's editors have been able to eke out just two volumes of his letters, many full of gossip, tittle-tattle, hilarious anecdotes, and racy asides about his sexual escapades.
Alexander Hamilton at p. 192.

The conversation between Holzer and Chernow was the good stuff, though. Chernow discussed his biographies of financial titans, of Washington, and of Hamilton, and his forthcoming one of Ulysses S. Grant. Interestingly, his degree is in English Literature, and he drifted into biography gradually, finding that historical figures came to life in a way fictional characters do for novelists, leading him to give up the imaginary for the historical. As he put it at one point, to write biography of someone he first needs to capture "the music of his mind." I get that. The characters who come to life in fiction--even in my own--are the ones who have a life in the writer's imagination that feels somehow apart from that of the author. As I quoted Susan Howatch the other day, "You can’t write a polemic for a lost generation. That’s not the way it works. It would be phony. If you get the story right," she continues, the novelist's "themes will emerge from the interaction of the people, and they can be completely understated." (Howatch is writing specifically of Christian themes in novels, but her observation is true of any fiction that is worth reading--the interaction of the characters must generate the plot and the underlying themes or, as she says, the book will be phony.)

The discussion between the two historians on their craft was warm and relaxed, and was really quite interesting--Holzer is a good interviewer. But when Chernow started talking about the play Hamilton, the discussion caught fire. This covers some of the same ground:
When Lin first approached me about his idea, he said Alexander Hamilton’s life was a classic hip-hop narrative,” said Chernow, whose book, “Alexander Hamilton,” has been on the Times best-seller list for 22 weeks. “And when he realized he was speaking to the biggest hip-hop ignoramus,” Chernow recalled, “Lin said, ‘Ron, let me educate you in hip-hop.’”

Miranda later invited him to be the historical adviser for the musical; Chernow remembered asking, “Does that mean I tell you when something is wrong?” To which Miranda sincerely replied, “Yes, I want the historians to take this seriously” – which, Chernow said, was music to his ears. Using hip-hop to pack Hamilton’s story into quick, condensed lyrics that told a very rich, complex story, the composer had seriously impressed the author.

Chernow recalled the whirlwind of emotions that have come with having a best-selling biography turn into a box-office-breaking Broadway musical. “The idea of middle-aged men sitting around discussing politics in 1776 conjures up remote, musty figures in our minds,” Chernow said. “But these gloriously talented, young, ethnically diverse performers have made the Founding Fathers seem approachable – bringing them to life.”
Chernow described his initially being confused by the almost entirely non-white cast--until they sang. And he described actor Chris Jackson's portrayal of Washington as "majestic, even regal."

You can see how he reached that conclusion:

And, yes, both books are now signed.

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