The First Alexander Hamilton Revival


Over at the blog of the United States Intellectual History Society, Andy Seal, a graduate student in American Studies at Yale, compares the current revival of Hamilton to an earlier revival that occurred at the turn of the 20th century.  Here is a taste:

I was just about to write that it is absurd to argue that the romance of Hamilton’s life has never been given full rein, for in 1902… and then I realized that 114 years is, after all, a long time, and that it is perhaps a little pedantic to argue for the pertinence of a precedent beyond living memory (at least in this instance). But in 1902 nonetheless, the controversial novelist Gertrude Atherton published The Conqueror: Being the True and Romantic Story of Alexander Hamilton to enthusiastic reviews, many of which luxuriated in Atherton’s indulgence in what she herself called “my romancing propensity.” The anonymous reviewer in the Literary Digest, for instance, quiveringly enthused that she “had become inebriated by the romance that prodigally clusters about Alexander Hamilton… Mrs. Atherton pulls out all the stops and makes the reader rock with the ululations of her p[a]eans.” The reviewer also notes that it “is one of the longest books of the year!” (Which is a nice moment to admit that my fascination with the book has nevertheless not extended to reading the whole thing… yet. It’s also dreadfully written, some of the plushest purplest prose you will ever encounter.)

Atherton was widely known at the time as a sexual radical; many of her female protagonists spurn the shame that was supposed to go hand-in-hand with any form of extra-marital sex. So it was only natural that this element would be played up in her narrative of Hamilton’s life: as the New York Times review noted, “with Mrs. Atherton… commanding intellect and marital constancy are not coexistent.” The Times quotes her on this matter: “To expect a man of Hamilton’s order of genius to keep faith with one woman for a lifetime would be as reasonable as to look for such genius without the transcendent passions which are its furnace.”  As another reviewer huffed, “It ought to be added that in this, as in some of her earlier books, Mrs. Atherton shows a curious moral indifference to the tremendous significance of sex relations.”

Read the entire piece here.