“The darker the night, the brighter the stars…” (full quote)
“My soul arises indignant at the avaricious and immoral turpitude which so vile a conduct displays” so thundered James Jackson right after Alexander Hamilton released his “Report on Public Credit”. Did you know finances could be so heart-pounding, moral, and well thunderous? I didn’t. Mr. Jackson also invoked “rapacious wolves” in one sentence. Modern day politicians have a thing or two to learn: their vocabularies are tiny, and one tenth as interesting as their forebears.
But what is “turpitude”? I am told: depravity, wickedness. And “rapacious”? Aggressively greedy or grasping. The first word just makes me think turpentine. I imagine I just demonstrated the smallness of my own vocabulary.
I am making great progress in “Alexander Hamilton” by Chernow, but terrible progress in writing about it. What can I say? Chernow has definitely taken a side, and he did that practically from page one. Yes, the author has an opinion and it is that Hamilton is a spectacular human being. Currently I’m prone to agree. But let’s consider my evidence: all of one book where the author’s personal persuasion is relatively clear.
I’ll close on this interesting note. “For Hamilton, Madison’s apostasy was a painful personal betrayal. [Madison fought parts of “Report on Public Credit”.] … This falling-out was to be more than personal, for the rift between Hamilton and Madison precipitated the start of the two-party system in America.” Who knew?
“Astonishment is the root of philosophy.”
Being a good Chicagoan, I have seen and loved “Alexander Hamilton”, the play. Being a nerd, I have started the book which inspired the play. And being a person of drama, I must rank them: the book wins.
Reading Ron Chernow’s Hamilton is like drinking from a fire hose of good words, none wasted. His lack of waste produces force, weight, power. I am even tired sometimes reading his work, but it is a delirious, happy tired. The West Indies are glowing – I can feel their heat – the colonies are barely formed, fractured, confused, and yet I see current American culture nascent in them, and Hamilton is America: young, passionate, unconventional, loud, calculating, risky, informed, and pulsating with confidence (and a host of bad things which can be left for a later post).
Here are the words that piqued my interest, that I simply didn’t know, or that I had once known and am so happy to remember.
“Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton–purblind and deaf but gallant to the end–was a stoic woman who never yielded to self-pity.”
– having impaired or defective vision
bombazine, de rigueur, bespoke
“Wrapped in shawls and garbed in the black bombazine dresses that were de rigueur for widows, she wore a starched white ruff and frilly white cap that bespoke a simpler era in American life.
– a twill fabric constructed of a silk or rayon warp and worsted filling, often dyed black for mourning wear.
– required by etiquette or current fashion
– dealing in or producing custom-made articles (especially clothing)
“The dark eyes that gleamed behind large metal-rimmed glasses–those same dark eyes that had once enchanted a young officer on General George Washington’s staff–betokened a sharp intelligence, a fiercely indomitable spirit, and a memory that refused to surrender the past.”
– to give evidence of
“Almost by default, the giant enterprise fell to her fourth son, John Church Hamilton, who belatedly disgorged a seven-volume history of his father’s exploits.”
– to discharge or let go of rapidly or forcefully
“Before this hagiographic tribute was completed, however, Eliza Hamilton died at ninety-seven on November 9, 1854.”
– the writing of the lives of saints; idealizing biography
I’m only to page 4 so I will close with this (from the prologue):
In all probability, Alexander Hamilton is the foremost political figure in American history who never attained the presidency, yet he probably had a much deeper and more lasting impact than many who did. Hamilton was the supreme double threat among the founding fathers, at once thinker and doer, sparkling theoretician and masterful executive… As the first treasury secretary and principal architect of the new government, Hamilton took constitutional principles and infused them with expansive life, turning abstractions into institutional realities. He had a pragmatic mind that minted comprehensive programs. In contriving the smoothly running machinery of a modern nation-state–including a budget system, a funded debt, a tax system, a central bank, a customs service, and a coast guard–and justifying them in some of America’s most influential state papers, he set a high-water mark for administrative competence that has never been equaled. If Jefferson provided the essential poetry of American political discourse, Hamilton established the prose of American statecraft. No other founder articulated such a clear and prescient vision of America’s future political, military, and economic strength or crafted such ingenious mechanisms to bind the nation together.
Having started “Alexander Hamilton” (by Chernow), I realized I must publish my post on “A Farewell to Arms”. And that in turn means I must make a confession: my mother is much smarter than I. I realized that once before, years ago, and then forgot it, repeatedly. Being an English prof also helps her case.
I was confused. So confused! What was “A Farewell to Arms” about? I wrote an entire introductory paragraph ridiculing the title of the book, but you will not be reading that. My mother the English prof claims the title of the book is practically the best thing about the book. Why? The main character simultaneously quits the military and loses the arms of his lover. So, the title is a double whammy and I missed it entirely.
Hopefully the rest of my thoughts are more incisive, and less embarrassing.
Were I to sum up this book I would say it’s an exploration or expression of a stoic view of pain. The main character, Henry – whose name you don’t get until about four fifths of the way through the book – is an unruffled, standard yet savvy fellow. Of the American breed, who has decided to join the Italian army. So normal. And given how normal it is, you are given no explanation.
[Spoilers follow, of the most regrettable kind if you intend to read this book.]
The author tells you Henry’s story with much emphasis on what bread, cheese, or wine he was consuming and with zero transitional phrases – get ready for bumps – but also with a lovely ease. Hemingway’s lack of ornamentation is refreshing. Soon after that it’s annoying, because it goes too far. His style becomes mildly abrasive and literally hard to be follow because, believe it or not transitions exist to, uhm, transition you. Along with transitions, Hemingway has kicked nearly all human emotion out the door: the book feels flat, one dimensional, unexplored, simplistic, stiff, stilted, nearly surreal (because I can tell you my life isn’t this colorless), and lifeless.
Harsh critique, right? At the same time as being lifeless, his simple descriptions of nature, or simply of the room the characters occupy, are somehow warm, compelling, and rich. He uses simple language – appropriately complementing his simple style – and it could be that the lack of difficulty in processing his word choice, and/or the conciseness (due to lack of ornamentation), brings his descriptions great clarity and therefore emotional impact. Anyway, I remember the cold air of the Swiss mountains they hiked through, and the red velvet of the hotel room where Catherine was concerned he’d think of her as a whore.
What I mostly remember however was the lack of depth of the romantic relationship in this book. Did Ernest Hemingway have a lover or wife ever? I would truly hope it carried more life than this relationship. The conversations that Henry and Catherine have are painfully simple. They are what I imagine eighth graders might have, eighth graders who are having sex and who are in the Italian military and who have slightly Victorian ideas of romantic relationships. “Are you pleased with me? I hope you’re pleased with me.” That’s Catherine. And then so often, the other character will respond with no response to what was previously said. They just change the topic, no warning, and the other person never gets upset or confused that the topic just changed or that the other person didn’t answer their question. Stilted, swift, unfinished conversations.
You know that time that Henry has a near-death experience and bravely dives into the river out of the hands and guns of the hordes of military men surrounding him who are about to kill him, and he miraculously gets away? Well, when he finds Catherine, he shares none of this story. Normal everyday occurrence, apparently. Instead, they go directly back to their “interesting” conversations. (They actually had the first interesting thing they could have talked about!)
Negative critique aside, it was fantastic to get my first Hemingway experience, to view the European countryside of World War I, to get an eye into Godless psychology (both Henry and Catherine “have no religion” as they put it) at a time when it was a little less acceptable, and to see one author’s attempt to address a wrong: the great pain of the world. This book is dark. Bleak. Empty. It’s not that you don’t get an interesting ride on the way down, but Henry’s own military trying to kill him at the end of the book, the miscarriage of his child, and Catherine’s death in labor bring the book to a quiet, horrible, and answer-less ending. The only element I can see consistently woven through the book is unanswered pain. Henry doesn’t care for his family – this is demonstrated in how little time he thinks about his family and in his response to Catherine’s concern for Henry to update his family with the fact that he’s alive. Henry has no ties to anyone that matters. His only real tie – which feels truly superficial – is to Catherine. His love, Catherine, dies a horrible and needless death, he loses his first child, and the book ends. He walks away in the rain.
Makes for good drama. And certainly he connects with his readers because who doesn’t know pain? But for me, it’s entirely unclear what the book is about. Meaning, if you are Ernest Hemingway, why write it? If life is so bad, where do you get the energy to write a book, and more importantly, to what purpose? There is some reason to be alive for Hemingway and, in this book, I see no reflection of it. I see only stoic expression of pain, no answer to pain, and resulting bleakness.
He did it again. Roger Federer beat a high quality opponent in a high quality game at the business end of a tournament. He’s 35, right? I believe his opponent was 21. And, he sweated. People say he doesn’t sweat. Well, he did tonight. It is Miami. Recently, he’s been winning games the gritty, scrappy, hard way. No more Mr. Perfect? I prefer to think of him as not understood. He’s always been gritty and scrappy; it’s that his high level of play hasn’t put him in positions which showcase grit. So now he’s gritty, scrappy, and perfect? Does it get better than that?
Yes! it! does!
Sunday, Roger plays Rafa for the second time this year! What?! No one saw that coming.
A never-public-till-now dream of mine has been to be a sports journalist. Why, you ask? Only in sports journalism can you be so, shall we say, ridiculous. It’s the whole lack of restraint thing. I! love! it! Only in sports journalism can you be so over-the-top yet, it’s ok, it’s even appropriate. It’s what I call: swashbuckling journalism.
But back to reality: Sunday, the legends play. I will be there. Will you?
Ebullient: cheerful and full of energy.