Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Hamilton Affair by Elizabeth Cobbs

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: May 11, 2016

Set against the dramatic backdrop of the American Revolution, and featuring a cast of iconic characters such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and the Marquis de Lafayette, The Hamilton Affair tells the sweeping, tumultuous, true love story of Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler, from tremulous beginning to bittersweet ending—his at a dueling ground on the shores of the Hudson River, hers more than half a century later after a brave, successful life. Hamilton was a bastard son, raised on the Caribbean island of St. Croix. He went to America to pursue his education. Along the way he became one of the American Revolution’s most dashing—and unlikely—heroes. Adored by Washington, hated by Jefferson, Hamilton was a lightning rod: the most controversial leader of the American Revolution. She was the well-to-do daughter of one of New York’s most exalted families—feisty, adventurous, and loyal to a fault. When she met Alexander, she fell head over heels. She pursued him despite his illegitimacy, and loved him despite his infidelity. In 1816 (two centuries ago), she shamed Congress into supporting his seven orphaned children. Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton started New York’s first orphanage. The only “founding mother” to truly embrace public service, she raised 160 children in addition to her own. With its flawless writing, brilliantly drawn characters, and epic scope, The Hamilton Affair will take its place among the greatest novels of American history.

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Alexander Hamilton
I understand trends and the rush to capitalize on Hamilton’s popularity, but I am not amused by Arcade Publishing’s decision to drape Elizabeth Cobbs’ The Hamilton Affair in artwork that was so obviously inspired by the musical’s playbill. I might be alone in this, but I get a ‘we don’t believe this book can succeed on its own merit’ vibe when looking at the jacket and I don’t think that’s quite the angle marketing was going for.

For the record, I live under a rock. I have not seen the show and I have never listened to the soundtrack which means my views are not colored by any sort of admiration for Lin-Manuel Miranda. I picked up Cobbs’ book because I appreciate revolution era fiction, but the reality of my experience with the novel proved so disenchanting that I can’t rouse much additional enthusiasm for the bandwagon’s worth of Hamilton titles that have magically appeared in bookstores across the country.

Cobbs’ passion for the material is obvious, but her approach struck me as rough and unpolished. I can only speculate, but I got the impression that she was so consumed with her own research that she forgot the basic mechanics of storytelling and neglected to realize how starting the story in 1768 hindered the development of the central relationship between Alexander and Elizabeth. You probably don’t have a copy to reference, but Cobbs’ leads don’t actually meet until Chapter 18 which seems a little late for a book meant to chronicle their love affair. Don’t get me wrong, the childhood anecdotes were interesting historically, but they felt unnecessary to the story at hand and left me somewhat annoyed with the first third of the narrative.

I should also note that Alexander and Elizabeth didn’t read as equals. Call me crazy, but Cobbs seems to have had more fun writing Elizabeth than she did Alexander. I can once again only speculate, but I think Cobbs’ creativity was stifled by the depth of her own research and that she was so focused on faithfully recreating the historic record, that she ignored the importance of character development. Little is known about Elizabeth so Cobbs was afforded more freedom, but Alexander is a different animal altogether. To be clear, the issue is not about likability or interpretation, I’d simply have preferred it if he’d read less like an automaton.

I will admit that I liked Ajax Manly, but I found myself at odds with Cobbs’ rationalization of the character and what he was meant to represent in the larger context of the narrative. In the Author’s Note, Cobbs states that Ajax “… is wholly fictional, though conjured out of Hamilton’s past to illuminate his lifelong opposition to slavery.” It’s an admirable statement, but I am disappointed that as a historian, Cobbs neglected to mention that Hamilton’s views are a subject of some debate. Cobbs stands with Michael D. Chan, David O. Stewart, Jerome Braun, and Ron Chernow, but there are those like Michelle DuRoss, Phillip W. Magness, Thomas J. DiLorenzo, and Ishmael Reed, who feel Hamilton’s abolitionist sentiments overstated. Reed went so far as to say that “Establishment historians write best sellers in which some of the cruel actions of the Founding Fathers are smudged over if not ignored altogether.” It’s an interesting idea and while I fully respect Cobbs’ decision to write a fictional story through whatever lens she likes, I can’t help being disappointed at her decision to paint the issue as an established and universally accepted fact in the footnotes of her work.

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It comforted Eliza that Alexander had atoned for his own mistakes years before, even though it flayed her pride at the time. She knew she would find her husband in Heaven. His sacrifices and generosity—his mercy even toward Burr—far outweighed his sins.
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