Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton is a phenomenon. Twelve years after its publication in hardcover, it’s number 2 on this week’s New York Times nonfiction paperback bestseller list. Yet there is nothing dumbed down about it. It is a work of popular history, to be sure, but it is a lengthy tome for serious readers on one of our most challenging founders.
Lin-Manuel Miranda was one such serious reader. Reading Chernow’s book, Miranda felt Hamilton’s story pierce him to the heart. Miranda thought the book might make a great musical. If Chernow’s book is a phenomenon, I don’t know the word to describe the musical Miranda adapted from it. It’s been the hottest ticket on Broadway since it opened. It’s sold out into the early days of the next Clinton administration. Miranda is the guy who turned Chernow’s book into a phenomenon. Having seen the musical, or in lieu of seeing the musical, one has to read the book. As featured on Broadway!
C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb is my idea of the ideal interviewer. When he sits down with authors, he puts himself in the intelligent reader’s place and asks the questions the reader would want answered. I had not been aware of Lamb’s interview of Chernow (video below, about 57 minutes) until it turned up on my Twitter feed over the weekend. Although the interview focuses on the intersection of the book and the musical rather than the book per se, I found it to be intensely interesting in its own way.
Lamb inserts good video clips to illustrate his questions. I thought readers might want to catch up with the interview, which C-SPAN has posted here with additional resources. C-SPAN has also posted Harold Holzer’s discussion of the book and the musical with Chernow here (also interesting: “What surprised me is how many people bring the book to the show”).
Our friend Stephen Knott reviewed Chernow’s book for the Claremont Review of Books in 2007. Professor Knott had this to say when the book’s success remained within conventional bounds:
If [Hamilton] is indeed rehabilitated, it will be thanks in large part to Ron Chernow’s splendid new biography….Chernow unearths new information about Hamilton, but more importantly this beautifully written book recounts the formidable obstacles he surmounted to become, next to George Washington, the indispensable American Founder. Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton is the best biography of Hamilton ever written, and it is unlikely to be surpassed.
Professor Knott expressed the hope at the time that Chernow’s book would “prompt Americans to grant Hamilton his long overdue honors.” With a little help from his Lin Miranda, the mission seems to have been accomplished.
NOTE: John and Paul will be happy to know that Chernow’s next project is a biography of Ulysses Grant, to be published next year. Chernow gives a preview of coming attractions toward the end of the interview.
ONE MORE NOTE: Rick Brookhiser is the author of a wonderful short biography of Hamilton. He wrote a generous review of the musical for NR before it made the transition to Broadway in “Funky founder.”