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Discussion: Narratives and Autonomy in Storytelling

Who tells your story?”

This refrain should ring a bell for anyone who has listened to or watched the musical Hamilton. A sweeping success with a tremendous cult following, the musical adapted a biography of Alexander Hamilton into a hip-hop sensation praised for everything from casting choices to the construction of the stage.

Ultimately, the musical Hamilton is the story as Eliza Hamilton told it, the story she had time to craft in the fifty years after Alexander Hamilton’s death. While biographers have long focused on the founding father, Eliza Hamilton has been more footnote than main role. Despite this, her hand is there in every narrative about Alexander Hamilton. She commissioned his first official biography, she carefully selected and curated the papers of his to preserve for the future, and she destroyed evidence and writings that she felt would tarnish her husband’s reputation. Eliza tells Alexander’s story, in the end.

In writing Eliza’s biography, Tilar Mazzero states that one of the greatest difficulties was reckoning with the narrative that Eliza was a scorned woman during the Reynold’s Affair. For those unfamiliar with the first great sex scandal of the United States, the Reynold’s Affair was a convoluted and complicated multi-year story centered around Alexander Hamilton–then Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton was regularly accused of improper speculation–specifically of using his knowledge of the Treasury and the banks to help family members and friends with insider trade tips. Hamilton was especially suspected due to his marriage to Eliza, who as a Schuyler was connected to several large, influential, and wealthy families of New England.

When Hamilton was confronted with evidence of his speculating concerning a Mr. James Reynolds, he asked the political rivals threatening to expose him to give him a series of hours to collect his own evidence, and then he would prove to them he was not guilty of their accusations. Mazzero points out that approximately twelve hours passed in the Hamilton household, in which Eliza Hamilton was present, that there are no records of surviving. When his rivals arrived, Alexander presented a series of love letters supposedly from Maria Reynolds–the wife of James Reynolds and a cousin of Eliza–laying out an affair that she and Alexander had that James Reynolds blackmailed him over. A gentleman’s agreement was struck that Hamilton’s rivals would not reveal this secret out of respect for Eliza’s dignity, and they would back off of this particular instance of supposed insider trading.

In the later years when the scandal broke again, and Alexander’s rivals including Thomas Jefferson cast doubt on his story of the affair–citing that Maria Reynolds fervently denied the affair and divorced James Reynolds over perpetuating the lies–Eliza and Alexander shored up and stood by the story. Eliza even went so far as to burn her own writings under speculation that Alexander wrote Maria’s supposed love letters based on Eliza’s. Typically, Jeffersonian biographers support the assertion that Maria Reynolds was uninvolved and Alexander Hamilton had engaged in insider trading. Hamiltonian biographers support that Hamilton and Maria had an affair. Mazzero chooses the former stance, pointing out that Eliza Hamilton was always intimately involved in Alexander’s narrative and in fact promoted the affair herself.

It is specifically that Mazzero favors Eliza, and who Eliza was at her core, that leads to this decision. Mazzero reveals that it was difficult to reconcile what is known about Eliza, and what is clear from records left behind, with the idea that Eliza was a scorned woman in this instance. In the end, Eliza always controlled the narrative, and chose the lesser of two evils to attribute to her beloved husband.

In this way, Mazzero both emboldens and takes from Eliza’s autonomy as a storyteller. In her lifetime, Eliza Hamilton went to great efforts to craft a particular version of events that showed her husband, her family, and herself in a specific light. Though this narrative may not have presented the strength and character of Eliza herself truthfully, it was the version of events Eliza wanted history to remember. In the musical Hamilton, her narrative prevails. But as Mazzero struggles to reconcile the image of herself Eliza put forth, Mazzero gives more character and strength to the subject of the biography while also turning the tide against the story that Eliza put forth all those years ago.

Ultimately, when it comes to autonomy and telling one’s own story, the author has the power to direct the narrative. A biography is only as powerful as its biographer, and the story that the subject wishes to be told may not be the story that is told. Sometimes this is to the addition of the character of the subject, as with Mazzero returning to Eliza the strength and autonomy that she exerted as a married woman–attributes that Eliza erased from her own story in order to promote a new version of Alexander’s. Other times, this is to the detriment of a narrative, to cast a new negative light over events. Either way, it is important to remember when encountering a narrative that whomever is telling the story wishes to tell it a particular way, and other versions of the story may be wildly different.

By Catherine

I'm a lover of books, coffee, wine, and bees. Happy to join the ranks of book bloggers everywhere!

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