Hamilton is fanfic, and its historical critics are totally missing the point

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News Media Commentary
Title: Hamilton is fanfic, and its historical critics are totally missing the point
Commentator: Aja Romano
Date(s): 04 July 2016
Venue: Vox
Fandom: Hamilton (Musical), Historical RPF
External Links: article on Vox
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On 4 July 2016, Aja Romano published Hamilton is fanfic, and its historical critics are totally missing the point. The article was prefaced, "Fans know exactly what Hamilton is about. Why don't historians?" and "Hamilton is fanfic, not historically inaccurate."

Earlier this year, the New York Times turned heads by asking whether the hit Broadway musical Hamilton’s historical fudging on certain points is, well, good for us. It's an excellent piece of concern trolling, giving several historians an opportunity to hand-wring about the musical’s overglorification of Alexander Hamilton, the immigrant revolutionary who authored the Federalist Papers and founded the US Treasury.

Excerpts

Several historians interviewed in the piece were quick to emphasize the liberties Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has taken with regard to the show's historical timeline, geographic location, and political context, which Miranda himself has been upfront about time and again. But Miranda’s blatant over-identification with his subject — he also stars in the title role — seems to have pushed many of them over the edge, leading to questions of whether Miranda’s celebration of Hamilton may be misleading students of history.

This criticism of how Hamilton places its title character in context might be legitimate if Hamilton weren’t, well, what it is. In essence, Hamilton is a postmodern metatextual piece of fanfic, functioning in precisely the way that most fanfics do: It reclaims the canon for the fan.

In this case, Hamilton’s canon is history, and the fan, Miranda, is doing a lot more than simply adapting it. Like the best fanfic writers, he’s not just selectively retelling history — he’s transforming it.

Alexander Hamilton has long been a divisive figure in the annals of historical study, but in recent years he’s become a focal point of a historical trend many academics and history enthusiasts refer to as "Founders Chic." Founders Chic first appeared as a term in a July 2001 issue of Newsweek and quickly caught on to describe the sudden millennial trend of lauding the forefathers.

A year later, in a now-offline essay for Common-Place, Jeffrey Pasley observed that "Founders" really meant "Federalist," as most of the acclaim was centered on David McCullough’s dazzling biography of John Adams, with plenty going to fellow Federalist Hamilton on the side.

Numerous other biographies of the Founding Fathers soon followed, as did a 2008 biopic based on McCullough’s Adams biography. Soon after that, Miranda famously conceived the idea for the musical while reading Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography, Alexander Hamilton, which focuses on Hamilton’s early life as a bastard orphan on the tiny Caribbean island of Nevis, and emphasizes the way his formative years shaped his relationship to the US.

Analyzing the Founders Chic trend in 2003, the Atlantic wrote critically of it: "In revering the Founders we undervalue ourselves and sabotage our own efforts to make improvements — necessary improvements — in the republican experiment they began. Our love for the Founders leads us to abandon, and even to betray, the very principles they fought for."

But although Hamilton stems from one of the trend's byproducts, its function as a text is to do exactly what the Atlantic calls for and critique the history the founders began. The real-life Hamilton’s experience, passion, and ambition resonated deeply with Miranda, who is deeply concerned with the American immigrant experience. Miranda immediately recognized a fellow hip-hop artist in Hamilton, in that the founder had all the earmarks of a Tupac or a Biggie Smalls: innate intellect, brashness, unrelenting ambition, and a grand tendency to start drama. (A much-admired piece of recent Hamilton fan art notes he will "fight anyone, including himself.")
Like countless fanfic writers before him, Miranda clearly loves his canon, but he expresses that love by tearing the canon to pieces. Like countless fanfic writers before him, he remains as close to the letter of authenticity as possible while also completely deconstructing the worldview he’s been given. Miranda uses his text to not only have fun with and celebrate US history but to critique everything about that history — something his perspective as the son of American immigrants writing about another American immigrant puts him in a unique position to do.

Miranda’s fanfic interrogates the mythos of the American dream, tearing down the idea that "America" emerged from a single cultural identity that belongs only to white European immigrants and their descendants. This is something Hamilton’s fan base seems to grasp innately. "Do you understand what it’s like to live in a nation where you are made marginal and inconsequential in the historical narrative that you are taught from your first day of school?" writes Tumblr user thequintessentialqueer in a brilliant explication of Hamilton’s function as a text:

Whose rebellion is valued? Who is allowed to be heroic through defiance? … Violence is only acceptable in the hands of white people; revolution is only okay when the people leading the charge are white … Hamilton is not really about the founding fathers. It’s not really about the American Revolution. The revolution, and Hamilton’s life are the narrative subject, but its purpose is not to romanticize real American history: rather, it is to reclaim the narrative of America for people of colour … If you’re watching/listening to Hamilton and then going out and romanticizing the real founding fathers/American revolutionaries, you’re missing the entire point.

Again and again, Miranda emphasizes that this version of US history is being told by those other immigrants — the ones who, as the show notes, "get the job done," and the ones who had no choice about whether to immigrate at all.

And just as he emphasizes that "you have no control … who tells your story," he reminds us that he’s telling the story of American history now — and he’s telling it his way.

If we rush to defend Hamilton in this instance, we can be forgiven: History is littered with examples of women and writers of color having their work subjected to a higher standard of inquiry and criticism than the work of their white male counterparts. And that is precisely why Hamilton exists as a text: to elevate and celebrate the dismissed and devalued.

Ultimately, critiquing Hamilton for historical accuracy regarding Alexander Hamilton's actual place in history is a fundamental misunderstanding of what Hamilton is doing as a modern metatext and as fanfic. The entire point of Hamilton is that the real Alexander Hamilton was a man for the 1 percent, not the 99 percent. The act of presenting Hamilton as a man for the people allows Miranda — and by extension, the audience — to feel as though they are actively shaping the future by making the past all about themselves.

The fundamental objective of fanfic, especially when it is written by women, queer and genderqueer people, and people of color, is to insert yourself, aggressively and brazenly, into stories that are not about and were never intended to be about or represent you.

In this way, Miranda's aggressive over-identification and use of a Federalist Founding Father to represent modern hip-hop and immigrant culture is precisely as subversive, and for many of the same reasons, as the woman-authored fic I read last week about a white male TV character who gets pregnant and gives birth to were-kittens.

Hamilton unites the story of American independence with black, Latino, and Asian actors who were excluded from it, and in doing so allows these excluded citizens to put themselves back into the narrative. Hamilton is not just a story of history — it is the story of the ongoing struggle to make sure that people of color, immigrants, women, and other marginalized citizens are included in the sequel.

Fans of Hamilton don’t flock to the musical because of the way it transforms the Founding Fathers.

They flock to Hamilton because of everything the Founding Fathers never were.

Response

Excerpts of the article were widely circulated on tumblr. [1]

The release of the article coincided with a change of attitude regarding the Hamilton fandom.

This article or section needs expansion.

References

  1. April 14, 2016 thefederalistfreestyle. "(a much longer essay than what is excerpted here)"