24 Hour Library

A Library Blog by Abby Hargreaves

Tag: biographies

Abby Reads: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
Penguin Books, 2005, 832 pages

I caught the Hamilton bug last June, during which time I swore to myself again and again that I’d listen to something else for a change, just to once again, plug the Hamilton soundtrack into my ears. (The obsession gradually shifted to also include Panic! at the Disco’s Death of a Bachelor, but I still listen to Hamilton pretty heavily, discovering new layers every time — but that’s enough about my music habits.) Like pretty much the rest of the country/world, I decided I must read the original biography which inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda’s magnum opus in the first place. My friends, I was not prepared.

It took several months waiting on four or five different holds lists (hooray for living in a metropolitan area with reciprocal library systems!) before I finally got my digital hands on it in late August. I have never been so grateful to have checked out the digital version of a book, because this thing is massive. Not only is it eight-hundred-thirty-two pages, but the print is pretty small. But I’m never one to back down from a challenge. This little monster took me about three months and some days to read, slowly inching through it by commute and lunch reading. And it’s not because it was boring.

It took me a while to get on the biography train. I’m someone who likes a decent amount of dialogue because it helps switch up the sentence length and, therefore, the pace. And certainly there were genuinely slow parts of the biography during which the passage of time and details about Hamilton’s life were necessary to include, but did not feature any exceptionally exciting moments. Fortunately, Chernow is a master at detail and rich research, which brings the subject and other players to life in a way of which few biographers are capable. This level of detail also allows Chernow to logically draw conclusions and implications for events we cannot necessarily know for sure about. For example, while Hamilton’s exact intent for Burr and Hamilton’s duel are cloudy, Chernow makes a reasonable guess based on his research and what we know of Hamilton himself.

With all of the detail, it’s easy to get lost in Chernow’s depiction of Hamilton. Returning to the length of the book, readers might even expect to eventually get bored — surely there’s only so much to say about a person, right? Chernow again defies the odds with an engaging prose style that, while not quite reading like fiction, does read with an easy flow. Chernow’s intelligent, yet accessible prose makes Alexander Hamilton a win for most readers. Chernow highlights his writing with fascinating anecdotes from Hamilton’s life and heightened drama and stakes, even as he writes of the past.

For readers who enjoy the details of the influences on the subject, Chernow makes more excellent progress. His focus on Eliza (Schuyler) Hamilton is unprecedented, even as he acknowledges the first-hand information on her is limited. This makes the book not just a beautiful tribute to Alexander Hamilton, but of all his family, friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and achievements.

The biography might have benefited from some illustrations, of course — although Chernow generally does an excellent job of explaining concepts, tools, and so forth of the past with which modern readers might not have familiarity, he often references paintings and other more visual media that might have increased the quality of the book had they been included. It’s reasonable, now, that we might simply use our phones to look up a given piece (I know I did), but when it was published in 2005, most readers did not have such a luxury and, to be sure, not everyone does now. Truly, I did most of my reading of this book underground in a Metro car. My cell service? Basically non-existent.

So, if you’re looking for something challenging in length this year, consider Alexander Hamilton. I think you’ll be as surprised as I was.

❤❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham by Emily Bingham

Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham by Emily Bingham
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016, 384 pages

In the extraordinarily patriarchal world of the 1920s, young Henrietta Bingham used her charm and family’s money to influence society both in the United States and abroad. With friends such as those in the Bloomsbury Group, Bingham seduced men and women alike with her charisma but with retrospect drawn from relatives’ memories and Bingham’s own documents (including letters, diaries, newspaper clippings, and psychological reports on the subject), a darkness which shadowed Bingham’s life emerges. In Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham, Bingham’s grand-niece, Emily, collects the artifacts of her great-aunt’s life in an attempt to gain a better understanding of her family history while bringing to light the great impact Bingham had on her family, friends, acquaintances, and the world beyond.

As a student of history, Emily Bingham’s (I’ll use the author’s first name going forward to avoid confusing her with the subject of the biography) strength is clear. Her historical account of Henrietta and the world around her brings the reader into a detailed sepia world. Deeply disturbed by the loss of her mother before her eyes in a car accident, Henrietta lives a bold and rash life, unafraid to take charge. And while the author often paints this unashamed character as a point of pride, she does not shy away from pointing out the damage Henrietta brought to those around her. Emily’s smart to acknowledge that she is, indeed, related to the subject of the work though she had no memory of contact with Henrietta and the majority of her family viewed her unfavorably up to Henrietta’s death. Emily also notes that the book began as a project for her degree.

Though an interesting character, Henrietta seems to feature less than the title of the biography would suggest. Instead, the effect Henrietta had on the world around her takes the main stage. Relationships with Henrietta, platonic or otherwise, clearly caused the partner and other relevant individuals a good deal of grief. They were so often tied up in themselves and their feelings for Henrietta that they seemed to forget that she, too, was human and not the goddess they made her out to be. Though this is somewhat a reflection on Henrietta herself, the readers are still left with a greater impression of Henrietta’s impact than of Henrietta herself, which serves to perpetuate this vision of Henrietta as greater-than-human.

By the end of this chronicle of Henrietta’s life, I felt somewhat abandoned. Sure, Henrietta’s boom of cultural impact certainly had its ripples beyond her intimate circle, but what of the woman herself? She is left behind in Emily’s narrative, leaving the world with a whimper, so contrary to her life prior. Though certainly Emily could not dictate the events of her great-aunt’s life to provide a more structurally sound narrative that better reflects what we’ve come to expect in fiction and the bioflicks we all seem to love so much, I couldn’t help but feel that, “I read all of this for what, exactly?” Its anticlimactic end is the true show of how this book was more a personal project for Emily which happened to make a decent enough story that it was worth selling, to some publisher, than it was a true work of biography.

But we’re given other bits that perhaps make the time invested worthwhile – the discussion of LGBTQIAA individuals in the early-to-mid twenty-first century gives new insight to the hostile climate to those less familiar with the nuanced challenges of the time. Henrietta’s relationship with her father provides an extraordinarily interesting look into the grief of a widower and his unwillingness to let his daughter into the world. The influence of money alone rears itself as a powerful force in Henrietta’s world. All-in-all, Irrepressible isn’t the most riveting, but to the right reader will have some excellent passages worth the time.

❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

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