Bad History: Essays toward the Crisis (2008-2018), #14, last thoughts on “Alexander Hamilton: an American Musical”

The premise for this selection of a decade of essays on the effects of bad history on bad civics is here.

This re-post, from the first days of the horrorshow that was early 2017, with Trump now President of the United States, is perhaps more rarefied than yesterday’s hobnob with Kim and Jen on Page Six.


The unpredictable Hamilton-musical phenomenon, which had seemed to rear up like a horror-movie monster from semiconscious themes in my years of essays on failures in American history and civics, gave me this unusual opportunity: at the invitation of Boston Review‘s editors, I pointed out intellectually damaging effects of the highly regarded scholar Martha Nussbaum’s acceptance of the history behind the musical.

(Prof. Nussbaum declined to take what I was saying seriously, leading to some unintended comedy in the final paragraph of her response, which evinces precisely the troping I was complaining about in her thought, even while denying that my complaints have any connection to that thought, as it was exposed in her “Hamilton” essay — plus I get placed, for once, on the same side as Gordon Wood, supposedly, which is funny too. You can find both Nussbaum’s response and her original essay via the link to my essay, above. Both of her pieces only confirmed a bias I sometimes have, which takes the form of sheer bafflement at the modes in which some of our most lauded academic types think, or write, or act, or do anything.)

Moving forward now. When I was asked to write that response, only about a week had passed since Election Day 2016, so when I posted, on this blog, a link to the essay, I added: “How can this matter right now? That’s something I imagine readers thinking … Right now it matters to me this way: You can blame Trumpism and be correct. My job is to blame the certified liberal-intellectual culture that has prevailed throughout my lifetime. We own this.”

By “certified liberal-intellectual culture” I meant Nussbaum, but I also meant me. And you, possibly. That criticism had long been my theme. Now it had exploded in my hands.

So my next and final move, in this selection of essays, is to move out of the first massive cultural-political explosion that blew up all my half-hidden themes — the Hamilton musical — and into the bigger and far more horribly discombobulating one — Grendel’s dam following Grendel — which is of course the fact that Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election. Bad history gets you bad civics — but man, that’s some really bad civics. I had some idea, but only, as it turned out, some.

If you’d like to see more of my thoughts on the musical, there’s another essay on the blog, which you can find by poking around. The Trump situation quickly became the bigger thing, so I leave that particular “Hamilton” essay out of this particular selection.

Before leaving the musical behind altogether, however: I was also delighted to be asked to contribute the opening chapter to Historians on Hamilton, 2018, from Rutgers University Press, edited by Claire Potter and Renee Romano. There I was able to bring together, via the public-history crisis of the musical, much of what I’d long been saying, here and elsewhere, in dissent from Ron Chernow’s Hamilton bio and the cult of Hamilton in Bush and Obama policy circles; and to criticize the founding-history profession’s having declined to engage with that nexus, which became so destructive.

I’m also proud to note that every contributor to that volume but me is a trained, certified, professional scholar. The crisis of the musical was in some ways good to me, or at least to getting certain ideas I’ve been writing about for years to somewhat bigger, more interested audiences. I’m only sorry that my rantings — like Kevin McCarthy’s in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” — were too little, too late.

Next up: the failure of liberal history as a contributor to the Trump crisis.

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