Award-winning biographer Ron Chernow sheds light on Alexander Hamilton

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  • by Inji Kim

On Wednesday, April 5, distinguished biographer Ron Chernow visited the Drew campus as the final Thomas H. Kean Visiting Lecturer of the 2016-2017 academic year. Though Chernow has shed light on numerous U.S. historical figures that have influenced business, finance, and politics through his richly nuanced biographies, the author mainly discussed his most popular biography of Alexander Hamilton that inspired the award-winning, pop sensation Broadway musical.

“I had suspected that the book would be dramatized at one point, but I never imagined it to be turned into a popular TV series, movie adaptation, or a Broadway production,” said Chernow, in his interview with The Drew Acorn. Undoubtedly the most exciting and dramatic figure out of all Founding Fathers, Hamilton successfully captivated the attention of the contemporary audience. This appeal, according to Chernow, comes from Hamilton’s evergreen image. “I always thought it had something to do with the fact that he was dead before the age of 50, so he is always young and fresh in our memories in the same way that JFK [is],” said Chernow. However, this is not the only appeal of Hamilton. “Part of the appeal of Hamilton is that he accomplished so much that we can admire him but also had many flaws that we can identify with him,” added Chernow, “he is not like this plaster saint on the shelf up there. He was very brilliant and dashing, but also a very headstrong man.” Chernow continued to explain that this sharply contrasts with the images of other Founding Fathers such as George Washington, who made keen and reserved choices though he may not have been as smart and brilliant as Hamilton. As a result, Hamilton’s character seems more personal and relatable to us today, which is the reason why he became such a familiar sensation to the contemporary audience.

Despite his deep understanding of why Hamilton holds such an appeal to a modern audience, Chernow was still greatly surprised when Lin-Manuel Miranda approached him to turn the book to a hip-hop musical. In fact, Chernow confessed that though he was very intrigued by the idea of the musical, he had little to no idea what it would turn out to look like. Nevertheless, Chernow considers the success of the musical and sensationalization of Hamilton as a “very happy accident.” This happy incident has significantly influenced Chernow as well.  He revealed that he enjoys rapping to college students; because of his close involvement with the musical, Chernow certainly has a new image to uphold now. “I’m this old historian, but I’m there representing this cool young show,” he explained and later performed a song from the show’s soundtrack during his lecture in the Baldwin Gym.

Throughout the interview and the forum talk, Chernow maintained a relaxed, humorous, yet highly intelligent and structured approach to his historical subject matter. Chernow shared that in many instances, students have approached him and tell him that they wished that they could have a history professor like him, proceeding to mention that they often find their history courses very boring. “Though I find this very flattering, I also find this very depressing because it makes a statement about the fact that history seems to be poorly taught in many places,” said Chernow. This is one of the appeals of historical biographies to Chernow; while revealing the emotions and a life of a single person, biographies also enable access to an enormous amount of historical facts, establishing a personal connection between the students and what otherwise would remain remote facts. To many’s surprises, Chernow holds two degrees in English; in fact, he revealed that “my dirty little secret is that I’ve never taken any history courses throughout my time in school,” which left his historical research completely on his hands to be self-taught. Chernow explained that this has both advantages and disadvantages when he is doing his research. The disadvantage, as mentioned before, is the fact that he often has to learn about a character in his book from scratch. The advantage is that he can see the person of his research through fresh eyes because he was never trained to view the person in a certain way. “I don’t know if I would have found this quite as exciting if I had been trained in it, and I think that maybe some of my excitement in my discovery is transmitted to the reader,” said Chernow.

Chernow advised this approach to Drewids as well. When he was told that many students in Drew conduct independent researches from undergraduate level, Chernow advised that it is important to both see the life of a person from inside out and outside in. “The secret is to mix the use the primary and secondary sources.” For the closing question of the interview, Chernow was asked a humorous question of what kind of a college student Hamilton would have been today. Chernow first said that Hamilton would be majoring in political science or history. “I’ve often wondered whether Hamilton would be attracted to politics at the moment,” he said. The reason behind Chernow’s thinking is that Hamilton’s creativity and originality would not fit into the political dynamics of today. Chernow concluded that Hamilton would undoubtedly be the most brilliant student on campus, one of his many charms that attract many of us today. Chernow will continue to shed light on more historical figures, his next book that is scheduled to be released this fall will examine the life of Ulysses S. Grant.

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