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Wait for it…Some Thoughts on Critiquing Hamilton

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Well…it didn’t take long for folks to go after Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash hit, Hamilton – and point out its failures as history. I’m not surprised – many jumped at Spielberg’s Lincoln before the credits finished rolling. The problem, as some see it, is that Hamilton, despite its diverse cast, is a “great man” history that obscures the role of those non-white, non-elite people, especially slaves, in the development of America.

The problem with this analysis, of course, is that Hamilton is not an academic history book, so it seems to me odd to review it as such. In fact, it’s not really history at all – but rather the story of ambition, envy, and of tragically flawed character.

Yes, Miranda’s musical (adapted from Ron Chernow’s biography) does gloss over or even leave out a few things concerning slavery in 18th and early-19th century America – though he does offer several moments praising abolitionists and snarkily jabbing at slaveholders.

The last time I checked, Miranda was not a professional historian. So why should we critique him as such? Perhaps we should ask what Hamilton does do – instead of what it doesn’t.  As far as I can tell, it has done a great deal to get people thinking about a particularly contentious and ambitious group of individuals set against a historical backdrop…and if Hamilton fans have been inspired to look deeper into the history of the Revolution and the Early Republic to find out what was really up – well then…what more can I say?

With compliments,

Keith

Letters, Diaries, and Journals

Screen Shot 2016-04-21 at 10.01.12 AMGreetings all – I have mentioned this on Twitter once or twice, but I thought I would put the call out here as well. This fall, I will be teaching an advanced studies course for 11th and 12th graders on the Civil War and Reconstruction, which will last for the full academic year. This course will rely heavily on published first-hand accounts. So…I am seeking suggestions for any published (and easily available) collections of letters, journals, or diaries. I have some good ones lined up for the Civil War units – Elisha Hunt Rhodes, Kate Stone, Sam Watkins, Robert Gould Shaw, and others – but I am having a much harder time finding similar accounts of the Reconstruction period. I will most likely put together a reader (I have a great collection of first-hand documents) if no good collections are readily available – so all suggestions are welcome 🙂

Thanks in advance!

Keith

Filming a Silent Epic

Screen Shot 2016-03-23 at 8.09.11 PMAs I continue my work on the making of the film, The Birth of a Nation, it is nice to run across the words of the director himself, D.W. Griffith, providing a greatly embellished (in terms of numbers involved) version of the story to the New York Sun. I am particularly interested in Griffith’s testimony concerning the film’s black extras. “The negro is a natural actor,” he claimed, “and the men and women of that race fully competent.”

Screen Shot 2016-03-23 at 8.34.52 PMWell…wasn’t that mighty nice of him to say? Shucks. Here’s the full article, published April 25, 1915 – just a few months after the film premiered (under the title: The Clansman) in Los Angeles at Clune’s Auditorium. Have a look…you should find the black actors’ living arrangements while on set “peculiar” to say the least. And I would like to thank Cynthia Lynn Lyerly for tipping me off to this one. I’ll remind anyone who will listen – Twitter and other social media platforms are simply fantastic venues for the sharing of information and ideas – and much easier to access than academic conferences.

With compliments,

Keith

 

Another Whiskey, Mr. Johnson?

Screen Shot 2015-12-02 at 10.22.40 AMOn inauguration day, 1865, Americans heard what Frederick Douglass deemed more akin to a sermon than a speech. He was referring, of course, to Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address – the main attraction. The opening act was something of a flop.

Andrew Johnson, having recently arrived in Washington City a bit under the weather, had earlier that day consumed several glasses of whiskey (he was from Tennessee, after all) to clear his head and steady his nerves.

Red faced and quite obviously intoxicated, he delivered – after his inauguration as vice president – a rambling and incoherent speech that meandered around glory and democracy until Hannibal Hamlin (Lincoln’s first VP) had to cut him off.

Lincoln, incensed, instructed his cabinet to keep an eye on him for the rest of the day.  But he came to his defense nevertheless, stating “I have known Andy Johnson for many years; he made a bad slip the other day, but you need not be scared; Andy ain’t a drunkard.”

Even so, poor Andy never shook the “drunken tailor” image. And that was just the beginning of his problems.

You can find out how things turned out for Mr. Johnson in my couse on Reconstruction.

With compliments,

Keith