The Criterion Collection: the release of Something Wild (1961)

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At long last, Something Wild, a nearly-unknown film from 1961, and a masterpiece, is available to purchase on Criterion.

I was honored to be asked to write the essay, which is now up on Criterion’s site:

Something Wild: Last Chances.

You do not want to miss this film.

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Happy Birthday to My Favorite Actor, Archie Leach

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As my friend Mitchell observed (in our conversation about Cary Grant – nee Archie Leach – linked to below):

To this day, people say, “Oh so-and-so’s the new Cary Grant.” Cary Grant was acting in 1930. We’re talking 70 years ago. Almost 80 years ago, and we’re still referring to people as the “new Cary Grant”. Well, guess what, there’s no such thing. If 80 years later, you’re still trying to find someone to be the next so-and-so, there is nobody. It’s only him.

It’s only him.

He created the mould. The mould for what it means to be a modern Movie Star. (He and Joan Crawford. Both.) But the mould was so totally in his own shape that nobody else could ever fit into it. They try. And marketing departments try to convince audiences: “Look. It’s the new Cary Grant.” But it’s like the Uncanny Valley. Nobody buys it. Actors have to create their own mould.

There’s talent, which he had. There’s versatility, which he had. There’s career and money smarts, which he had. There’s beauty, which he had. These all helped enormously especially in the longevity of his career. He played it really really smart. But the thing he really had – which is difficult to talk about or define – is Magic.

And THAT’S Cary Grant.

I watch him in WONDER.

Here are some of the things I have written about him over the years:

#1, an enormous essay on one of his best performances in Hitchcock’s Notorious:
The Fat-Headed Guy Full of Pain: Cary Grant in Notorious

#2: Mitchell and I discuss Justin Timberlake, Lena Horne, Doris Day, Jill Clayburgh, Don Rickles and Cary Grant:
Mitchell Fain Presents: Part 1

#3: For Bright Wall/Dark Room:
You Are What You Do: His Girl Friday

#4. On Sylvia Scarlett, the extremely strange film that represented Cary Grant’s real “break” although he had been in films for a while:
The Wonderful Weird WTF-ness of Sylvia Scarlett

#5. Because of course:
Anatomy of Two Pratfalls: Cary Grant and Elvis Presley

#6. For Capital New York:
On Bringing Up Baby

#7. For House Next Door:
5 for the Day: Cary Grant

The rest of the stuff I’ve written on Cary Grant can be found here.

P6ToO

Posted in Actors, On This Day | Tagged | 32 Comments

Book Review: Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936, written and illustrated by Edward Sorel

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I reviewed this absolutely wonderful book for Rogerebert.com.

Posted in Actors, Books | Tagged | 2 Comments

The First Glimpse of The Guy Who Started It All

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Age 13. Babysitting. Up later than I normally would be. East of Eden was on late-night television. I had never seen it. I don’t even know that I was aware of who James Dean was. And certainly not Elia Kazan. I was a ravagingly unhappy pubescent, intermittently suicidal and prostrate with despair. Recovering from what I now realize was my first breakdown at age 12, bipolar having stepped into the room, uninvited and unannounced, saying, “Whassup. I’ll be your new Roommate for Life.” Of course I didn’t know that at the time and it would be decades before things got so harrowing that I got diagnosed. I was also already a budding actress, involved in community theatre and drama clubs. My aunt was a professional actress and an inspiration: Acting was a JOB that could actually be DONE. It wasn’t some weird fantasy. I was ambitious enough to try to figure out – on my own – how I could get myself to New York for an Annie open call. I wanted to move to New York some day. I was one of those very young people who knew, without a shadow of a doubt, what I wanted to do one day. No question. I was already in love with old films and actors, in general.

James Dean is first seen in long-shot for the haunting opening sequence, a lanky figure in the background. And this – up above – is our first real glimpse of his face. It is not an exaggeration to say that this moment shook my world. It re-arranged me. A seismic shift. My priorities, my awareness. My GOALS changed. This moment led me to the Actors Studio many years later, sitting in the balcony of that famous renovated church on 44th Street, where Marilyn Monroe had sat, Al Pacino, Eli Wallach, steeped in the history I had been dreaming about since I first saw East of Eden. (After seeing the movie, I used my after-school job at the local public library to research the film. I discovered a treasure trove of biographies. I learned of a man named “Elia Kazan”. I followed the trail of bread crumbs.) I attended sessions at The Studio, I got involved in projects any way I could. I studied with Actors Studio members who had worked with Lee Strasberg, with Kazan. (A propos of nothing, recently I realized – and I have no idea how I did not notice this before – that in my life I have had not one, but TWO, romantic entanglements with people whose fathers had important roles in Kazan’s autobiographical film America America. I did not plan this, I swear. I wasn’t targeting people from afar. It just happened that way.)

This was the Moment. The genesis of everything. A to B.

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Happy Birthday, Benjamin Franklin.

A re-post for Benjamin Franklin’s birthday, born in Massachusetts on this day in 1706. This makes me so sad to post. On this week of all weeks. If you’ve read me long enough, then you know my feelings for our Founders and my admiration for how carefully they created our flawed yet beautiful form of government. They tried. They tried to see into the future, to anticipate what could threaten the institutions, what could be coming. They knew that man was not to be trusted. Ever. They were deeply practical men. This is a terrible week. To anyone who thinks this is a good week, your comments are not welcome here. I’m very sad to say this for I have always cherished good old-fashioned political debate. But it’s a new world now. Defending the indefensible will not happen on my site. Not now. I re-read this post this morning, which I wrote maybe 5 or 6 years ago, and there’s a very prescient (if I do say so myself) line about the “easily duped.” So I post this with sadness and rage and the deepest sense of patriotism that I possess, which is pretty damn deep. I will continue to honor “these guys,” as I always have, even when it was unfashionable to do so in certain circles – some of the circles I operated in – these eccentric, contentious, brilliant, flawed men, who tried to set something up that would stand the test of time. Honoring them is now an act of protest.

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My grandmother had a big illustrated copy of Poor Richard’s Almanac, which I had practically memorized by the time I was 6 years old. The illustrations were goofy and elaborate, and I somehow “got the joke” that so much of it was a joke, a satire on the do-good-ish bromides of self-serious Puritans who worry about their neighbor’s morality. Obviously I wouldn’t have put it that way at age 6, but I understood that the book in my hands, the huge book, was not serious at all. Clearly, many others did not get the joke. Benjamin Franklin, throughout his life, was a master at parody and satire, as well as such a master that he is still fooling people! He was his very own The Onion! He presented ridiculous arguments and opinions in a way where people nodded their heads in agreement, and then afterwards wondered uneasily if they were being made fun of. Their uneasiness was warranted. Yes, Benjamin Franklin was making fun of them.

Franklin played such a huge role not only in creating bonding-mechanisms between the colonies – with newspapers, his printing service, the Almanac – but in science and community service (he started the first fire-brigade in Philadelphia on the British model. He opened the first public lending library in the colonies), as well as his writing. He was an Elder Statesman of the relatively young men who made up the Revolution. There were so many of “those guys” who played a hand in the Revolution, but perhaps Benjamin Franklin played the most crucial role in his time as a diplomatic presence in France, where he became so beloved a figure that the French fell in love with him, commemorated him in songs and portraits, putting his mug on plates and cups and platters and buttons – so that in a time when nobody knew really what anybody looked like, Benjamin Franklin was instantly recognizable the world over. The French falling in love with him was extremely important, and helped ingratiate the rebellious American colonies to the French so that they made the (in retrospect) unbelievably risky choice to back the Revolution financially. (Dear France, you HAVE a king. You are supporting throwing over another King. You’ve got to know that that is going to come back and bite you in the ass. Oui? Non?)

When the Battle of Yorktown went down, Franklin was still in France. The following story may be apocryphal (as so many Franklin stories are), but I love it nonetheless:

Word came to France of the decisive American victory, and the complete surrender to George Washington in Yorktown. Franklin attended a diplomatic dinner shortly thereafter where everyone was discussing the British defeat.

The French foreign minister stood, and toasted Louis XVI: “To his Majesty, Louis the Sixteenth, who, like the moon, fills the earth with a soft, benevolent glow.”

The British ambassador rose and said, “To George the Third, who, like the sun at noonday, spreads his light and illumines the world.”

Franklin rose and countered, “I cannot give you the sun or the moon, but I give you George Washington, General of the armies of the United States, who, like Joshua of old, commanded both the sun and the moon to stand still, and both obeyed.”

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One of my favorite periods in Benjamin Franklin’s life was early on, long before his time as a Revolutionary, and beloved ambassador to France. He was a teenager. 15, 16 years old. He was trying to get his work published. No luck. He had a lot to say. But no newspapers were biting. So he created an alter ego, a widow in her 40s named Mrs. Silence Dogood. I mean, the name alone … Mrs. Silence Dogood wrote chatty letters-to-the-editor about various issues of the day, her observations, her thoughts and feelings. Benjamin Franklin, the teenager, who had created her, would push “her” letters under the door at his elder brother’s print shop (brother printed the New England Courant). Franklin’s older brother found the letters amusing, and he had no idea that his teenage apprentice brother was the author. He started publishing them. They received a lot of attention, locally, and people loved her. She even got marriage proposals through the mail. Picturing a 15-year-old boy engineering this hoax just so he could see his name (although not really) in print … it’s just too awesome. Silence Dogood’s voice was somewhat arch, a little bit dim, very sentimental, and she seemed to not realize how funny she was. But Franklin knew how funny she was.

Like any good actor or performer, Franklin had a whole backstory for Silence Dogood. He cared about his character. He created her voice, and he stuck to it: he imagined his way into her “thought” processes. She shared her entire life story in one of the letters. I can barely read the Silence Dogood stuff without laughing out loud. All I can see is a teenage boy scribbling it all out in his tiny room by candlelight, giggling to himself.

Just one excerpt from the 15 Silence Dogood letters eventually published, this about her marriage to her “Master”:

We lived happily together in the Heighth of conjugal Love and mutual Endearments, for near Seven Years, in which Time we added Two likely Girls and a Boy to the Family of the Dogoods: But alas! When my Sun was in its meridian Altitude, inexorable unrelenting Death, as if he had envy’d my Happiness and Tranquility, and resolv’d to make me entirely miserable by the Loss of so good an Husband, hastened his Flight to the Heavenly World, by a sudden unexpected Departure from this.

Now if you didn’t know that the whole thing was an elaborate joke, you might see in this flowery language a depth of emotion, an actual woman trying to express herself. This was the style of the day. Nobody would ever guess that a pimply kid was writing it. But once you know the joke, there is barely a line of Silence Dogood’s prose that is not 100 % hilarious. It’s all quite EARNEST, her opinions, her humility (“why should any of you want to listen to little ol’ me?”), her outrage about things like hoop skirts, her observations, her expressions of loneliness and yearning for a man … But it’s all just an invention of Benjamin Franklin and it’s deliciously funny.

From the Massachusetts Historical Society. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Of course his older brother eventually discovered that he had been printing phony letters – written by his sibling – and was furious about it. Benjamin Franklin fled Boston and went to Philadelphia, and left Silence Dogood behind him.

But I love that that was Franklin’s start as a writer. It was basically a drag performance. You get the sense he could have just kept going. And Poor Richard’s Almanack (wrote a post about it here) was also a “performance”. Yes, it had proper almanac features, but it was the voice of the self-pitying “Poor Richard” himself that distinguished it from other almanacs. And sprinkled throughout were little pearls of “wisdom”, epigrams and “sayings” – and these are what the almanac is still known for.

Obviously I could talk about Benjamin Franklin forever.

Let’s move on to Hitchens’ essay about him, included in Arguably (an awesomely comprehensive essay collection – the subject matter, the depth, the breadth!). This particular essay is a review of Benjamin Franklin Unmasked: On the Unity of His Moral, Religious, and Political Thought, by Jerry Weinberger, a book that Hitchens clearly admired very much. I should read it. I’ve only read crappy biographies of Franklin. And then of course there is Franklin’s essential Autobiography. Hitchens writes, of that Autobiography:

There are two kinds of people: those who read Franklin’s celebrated Autobiography with a solemn expression, and those who keep laughing out loud as they go along.

One can guess which group Hitchens belonged to. He describes reading it in a bar in Annapolis and guffawing to himself, and when people asked him what he was reading that was making him laugh so hard, he showed them the cover, and everyone looked confused.

You have to go into Franklin’s Autobiography with great skepticism, and you need to keep an eye out for the booby traps everywhere. Some of it is serious, some of it is not. Some of it is personal myth-making, other parts are making fun of those who turn their own narratives into an epic myth. Take nothing at face value. Benjamin Franklin is both brilliant and totally unreliable as a narrator. Don’t trust him! Ever! It’s like people who post links to the Onion on their FB pages, saying, “CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS IS GOING ON????? I AM OUTRAGED.” And the comments section then fills up with people saying, “Uhm, that’s satire.” Once the credulous folks realize that they have been Punked but GOOD, they often resort to defensive huffy comments such as: “Well, it’s so close to the truth that I AM STILL OUTRAGED.”

The easily-duped will always be with us. I wonder if being addicted to OUTRAGE. ALL. THE. TIME. makes people more credulous.

Here’s an excerpt from Hitchens’ entertaining book review.

Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens, ‘Benjamin Franklin: Free and Easy’, by Christopher Hitchens

It is precisely Franklin’s homespun sampler quotations about frugality and thrift that made him rich and famous through the audience of his Almanack. And it was these maxims, collected and distilled in the last of the Poor Richard series and later given the grand title The Way to Wealth, that so incensed Mark Twain as to cause him to write that they were “full of animosity toward boys” and “worked up with a great show of originality out of truisms that had become wearisome platitudes as early as the dispersion from Babel.” A point, like a joke, is a terrible thing to miss. When I re-read The Way to Wealth from the perspective of Jerry Weinberger, I could not bring myself to believe that it had ever been taken with the least seriousness. In the old days at the New Statesmen we once ran a celebrated weekend competition that asked readers to submit mad-up gems of cretinous bucolic wisdom. Two of the winning entires, I still recall, were “He digs deepest who deepest digs” and “An owl in a sack bothers no man.” Many of Poor Richard’s attempts at epigram and aphorism do not even rise to this level. My favorite, “‘Tis hard for an empty Bag to stand upright,” is plainly not a case in which Franklin thinks he has polished his own renowned wit to a diamond-hard edge. The whole setting of The Way to Wealth is a “lift,” it seems to me, from Christian’s encounter with Vanity Fair in The Pilgrim’s Progress. And the heartening injunctions (of which “The Cat in Gloves catches no Mice” is another stellar example) are so foolish that it is a shock to remember that the old standby “God helps them that help themselves” comes from the same anthology of wisdom.

Franklin’s moral jujitsu, in which he always seemingly deferred to his opponents in debate but left them first punching the air and then adopting his opinions as their own, is frequently and sly boasted about in the Autobiography, but it cannot have afforded him as much pleasure as the applause and income he received from people who didn’t know he was kidding. The tip-offs are all there once you learn to look for them, as with Franklin’s friend Osborne, who died young.

He and I had made a serious Agreement, that the one who happen’d first to die, should if possible make a friendly Visit to the other, and acquaint him how he found things in that separate State. But he never fulfill’d his Promise.

At a time when some noisy advocates are attempting to revise American history, and to represent the Founders as men who believed in a Christian nation, this book could not be more welcome. I close with what Franklin so foxily said about the Reverend Whitefield, whose oral sermons were so fine but whose habit of writing them down exposed him to fierce textual criticism: “Opinions [delivered] in Preaching might have been afterwards explain’d, or qualify’d by supposing others that might have accompany’d them; or they might have been deny’d; But liter script manet.” Yes, indeed, “the written word shall remain.” And the old printer left enough of it to delight subsequent generations and remind us continually of the hidden pleasures of the text.

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Happy Birthday, John Carpenter


Kurt Russell as Elvis Presley, 1979

“An Elvis movie is always worth watching because of Elvis.” – Kurt Russell

John Carpenter, director:

In dealing with Elvis, I’m bringing a lot of my own feelings to it and how I feel about him, and how I interpret the script, how I interpret his life. And in that sense, from my point, it’s a personal film. I really love Elvis a lot. I’ve always been a fan of his. I love his music. I have a strong feeling for him, it means something to me, I care a lot about the character, I care about his story. And in some senses I feel lucky to be able to direct a film about Elvis, this kind of a film which I don’t feel is exploiting him but I feel is trying to tell his story, trying to tell a story about a man who is bigger than life which is very interesting because he really was a human being, but somewhere in his life I think he transcended that and became mythical.

I am thankful this movie exists. It was the first attempt to “deal with” Elvis after his death in 1977. So many horrible details had come out following Elvis’ death (as well as right before his death, with the tell-all Bodyguard Betrayal) that Carpenter already felt that an Act of Redress was necessary. Same with Dave Marsh, whose spectacular 1981 book Elvis! served a similar function. Why drag Elvis off his pedestal? Who cares about the drugs, except for the fact that they took this man and his music from us? Maybe Elvis WAS a cautionary tale but that’s not all he is.

John Carpenter’s Elvis deals compassionately with Elvis’ rise to the top, and it is an act of almost aggressive positivity in the face of the morbid gloom about how far Elvis had supposedly fallen. Kurt Russell, who, as a child actor, kicked the actual Elvis’ shins in It Happened at the World’s Fair

… is so wonderful as Elvis (and I can’t watch actors being Elvis, and I can’t stand Elvis impersonators). Shelley Winters plays Elvis’ beloved Mama, Gladys.

Things are left out of the film. Mainly: drugs. Elvis didn’t get into drugs in the ’70s. He was introduced to amphetamines in the Army, 1958!, so that he could stay up all night on his patrols and shifts. The addiction was terrible in its sneak and stealth (the pills were seen as harmless, and were also a good way to lose weight), especially to a guy who had never had a drop of alcohol in his life, and hated “partying” and “drunkenness.” He loved to have fun, but fun for him involved girls and football and roller coasters and movies and hamburgers. Carpenter made a choice to leave the drugs out. And the film ends not with Elvis approaching his death, but with Elvis taking the stage in a white jumpsuit for his nerve-wracking live comeback at the International Hotel in 1969/1970. When he triumphed, yet again.

But in the face of all of the revelations about Elvis, and all the tell-all books from people who barely knew him, Carpenter – whose comment above is eloquent – wanted to show the mythology (the dead twin, the Mama’s Boy thing, the vulnerability that helped make him who he was as a performer) in a positive way, and yet an honest way. The isolation of fame. There’s a great scene where Elvis stands in his backyard, surrounded by his entourage, and he takes out a cigarette and they all whip out their lighters. Elvis does not demand that kind of devotion, and Russell plays the moment uneasily, accepting a light from one of them, but showing that in the heart of the character, he knows that this is not normal, nor is it good for him.

Carpenter’s film has not yet been topped.

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The man had towering stature as a cultural figure. Any film that does not acknowledge at least that is untruthful and vindictive.

Thank you, John Carpenter! I know you’re known for other things now, but this is the one I treasure.

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“Like seeing a myth materialize.” On the lost footage (3 minutes and 17 seconds) of Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Monroe poses over the updraft of New York subway grating while in character for the filming of "The Seven Year Itch" in Manhattan on September 9, 1954.  The former Norma Jean Baker modeled and starred in 28 movies grossing $200 million. Sensual and seductive, but with an air of innocence, Monroe became one of the world's most adored sex symbols. She died alone by suicide, at age 36 in her Hollywood bungalow.  (AP Photo/Matty Zimmerman)

What a great article.

Posted in Actors | Tagged | 2 Comments

Review: Ma (2017)

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Ma is a fascinating and gorgeous-looking low-budget film (I think she funded a lot of it on Kickstarter) from dancer/choreographer/film-maker Celia Rowlson-Hall. Worth a look. Support smaller films. This is when people have nothing to lose and no choice but to be personal.

My review of Ma is now up at Rogerebert.com.

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Happy Birthday, Jack London

Jack London was born on this day, January 12, 1876. Happy birthday to the man who wrote:

The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.

Jack London was a magazine writer who achieved world-wide fame during his lifetime. Best-known for The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and To Build a Fire, he had a robust and busy career as a reporter and social activist. Some of that stuff does not time-travel as well as his most famous works, but it’s all an interesting look at the fights of the Left during that era. He was a big unionizer. He wrote a lot about class war. He had spent his formative years as a teenager bumming around, pan-handling, getting jobs on ships (on which he traveled as far away as Japan), working in canneries. He did attend high school but he was essentially self-educated, a voracious reader. He wrote for the high school newspaper about living through typhoons off the coast of Japan (not the usual high school essay topic). He was determined to go to Berkeley and after busting his ass on the entrance exams and applications, he got in.

But London always kept a foot in the wild side. While attending Berkeley, he hung out in saloons frequented by sailors and pirates and rough trade. These were his people. He would end up writing about all of them.

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He grew up not knowing who his father was. His mother had been living with a man prior to his birth, but all records (of any kind) were destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, so whether or not the two made it legal is still not known. London, while at Berkeley, wrote to this gentleman (who was an astrologer, then living in Chicago), and inquired if he might be his father. The man replied bluntly that this could not be the case, as 1. he was impotent, and 2. Your mama “got around,” son. It was this event that made London quit school and flee to the Klondike, following the gold rush of the 1890s, but also running away from his own problems and heart-break.

His time in the Klondike was formative (his best-known books come from that time) but it also destroyed his health. He developed scurvy (a condition that would have long-lasting effects on him). His career as a magazine writer started for real after he left the Klondike. He became involved in politics and activism. Like many people who grew up poor, he did not have grandiose ideas about his writing: His writing was his work, a way to make money, an escape from the drudgery of office work or the brutality of manual labor. London “came up” during the Golden Age of Magazines as well, and he benefited from the better/faster printing technologies, wider circulation, better mailing routes, all of the developments bursting forth in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Because of all of these factors, his work reached a mass audience in a way it might not have in a different era. He made a great living.

He died at home. Some think his death was a suicide. He had been living with unbearable pain from kidney stones.

The epitaph he chose for his gravestone was the first part of Psalm 118:22:

The Stone the Builders Rejected

(The second part of the Psalm, the part that completes it is “has become the capstone”, but that is not included on London’s tombstone. Much food for thought here in the choice of epitaph, not to mention the choice to EDIT it, as only a writer would.)

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The Call of the Wild was one of those books I was forced to read in 8th grade (not even 10th or 11th grade, but 8th grade!) and absolutely LOVED. I did not love all of the books I was forced to read then, but Call of the Wild captured my imagination. I remember the reading experience vividly. I remember being afraid of the wildness of the wolves and wanting Buck to go back home where he could be safe and warm. But then I also remember thinking: Running free through the snow and howling at the moon sounds amazing, and he is doing what he knows best. But still: the transformation Buck has to go through, from a domestic pet to a wild pack-dog (and not just the wild pack-dog, but the leader of the pack) was fascinating to me. I was 12 years old, and I clicked with it. (Kudos, London.) I kept thinking, as I read it, as each chapter went on, “It’s not too late for someone to save him … someone needs to swoop down and save Buck … he can still go back!” But eventually there comes a point of no return. And Buck must get strong and Alpha or he will not survive. It is as clear as the nose on his beautiful face what he must do.

There are lessons in this for all of us. It’s a brilliant book. It’s about animals, but the entire time I read it I kept inserting myself into Buck and wondering, “How would I behave in this situation? Would I survive? Would I buckle under? How would I cope with all of that?”

You begin to realize that the journey of the book is that Buck becomes himself, his true self, over the course of events. That the tame Buck in the beginning was the lie, the falsehood. His domestic days were not the norm, they were an unnatural respite: being wild is who he really is. And it’s not just about who he really is: it’s a cellular memory of his own species, the deep course of understanding within him that “This is the way we wolves are.” By the end of the book it is impossible to imagine Buck lying curled up in front of a fire and playing fetch. Buck has not “reverted”. He has inhabited his true destiny. He is not a conscious animal, at least not in the way human beings are conscious. He does not reflect. But he knows that the sound of the pack calls something up in him, something primal, something older than anything he has ever known. The destiny of biology.

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There was something else that helped me click with Call of the Wild at such a young age. In the late 70s, there was a Charlie Brown TV special called What a Nightmare, Charlie Brown! This was a different sort of Charlie Brown than the other specials. Charlie Brown appears only briefly. Snoopy is the sole star. In it, Snoopy is, like Buck, taken from his cozy dog house and thrust into the wild life of being a Klondike sled dog. He, like Buck, must learn to fight for his food (or he won’t eat), he must learn to dominate the other dogs, because “playing well with others” in this environment means you starve or die. This is a special for CHILDREN, remember. The whole special is deeply disturbing to our ideas of Snoopy. (There’s a clip below. Watch how he transforms in it. Look how big his teeth get, how huge his mouth gets when he roars). It’s disturbing on every possible level. It is a nightmare. God, I love the 70s. An era that was not afraid to freak out the children.

I probably watched this thing when I was 7, 8 years old. I didn’t know that what I was watching was an homage to Jack London’s book. I hadn’t read it yet. I was in 3rd grade. All I knew was that Snoopy had huge fangs and he was starving and cold and far from home and it WAS a “nightmare.” I ached for things to get back to normal.

A couple of years later, when I was much more sophisticated (i.e.: 12 years old), I read Call of the Wild and felt like the smartest person who had ever LIVED because I made the connection in my head: “OMG, that Charlie Brown movie was actually Call of the Wild!!” It was one of those moments of brain-growth, where you realize that the adults know something you don’t, that there are worlds of connections and references out there that you have no access to yet … but you will someday, if you learn enough, grow enough, read enough. It was a great moment for me. I discovered Call of the Wild for the first time, but making “the Snoopy connection” in my head was far more important. Because making connections like that is part of developing a critical mindset, an aware mindset, an awareness of the threads running through the culture. Making that connection – more so than any ponderous Foreword to the book, written by a scholar – let me know What a Big Deal the Book Was. Damn, if PEANUTS references it, then it MUST be a famous book!

Here is one of my favorite excerpts from Call of the Wild.

EXCERPT FROM The Call of the Wild by Jack London

In the days that followed, as Dawson grew closer and closer, Buck still continued to interfere between Spitz and the culprits; but he did it craftily, when Francois was not around. With the covert mutiny of Buck, a general insubordination sprang up and increased. Dave and Sol-leks were unaffected, but the rest of the team went from bad to worse. Things no longer went right. There was continual bickering and jangling. Trouble was always afoot, and at the bottom of it was Buck. He kept Francois busy, for the dog-driver was in constant apprehension of the life-and-death struggle between the two which he knew must take place sooner or later; and on more than one night the sounds of quarrels and strife among the other dogs turned him out of his sleeping robe, fearful that Buck and Spitz were at it.

But the opportunity did not present itself, and they pulled into Dawson one dreary afternoon with the great fight still to come. Here were many men, and countless dogs, and Buck found them all at work. It seemed the ordained order of things that dogs should work. All day they swung up and down the main street in long teams, and in the night the jingling bells still went by. They hauled cabin logs and firewood, freighted up to the mines, and did all manner of work that horses did in the Santa Clara Valley. Here and there Buck met Southland dogs, but in the main they were the wild wolf husky breed. Every night, regularly, at nine, at twelve, at three, they lifted a nocturnal song, a weird and eerie chant, in which it was Buck’s delight to join.

With the aurora borealis flaming coldly overhead, or the stars leaping in the frost dance, and the land numb and frozen under its pall of snow, this song of the huskies might have been the defiance of life, only it was pitched in minor key, with long-drawn wailings and half-sobs, and was more the pleading of life, the articulate travail of existence. It was an old song, old as the breed itself – one of the first songs of the younger world in a day when songs were sad. It was invested with the woe of unnumbered generations, this plaint by which Buck was so strangely stirred. When he moaned and sobbed, it was with the pain of living that was so old the pain of his wild fathers, and the fear and mystery of the cold and dark that was to them fear and mystery. And that he should be stirred by it marked the completeness with which he harked back through the ages of fire and roof to the raw beginnings of life in the howling ages.

Seven days from the time they pulled into Dawson, they dropped down the steep bank by the Barracks to the Yukon Trail, and pulled for Dyea and Salt Waters. Perrault was carrying despatches if anything more urgent than those he had brought in; also, the travel pride had gripped him, and he purposed to make the record trip of the year. Several things favored him in this. The week’s rest had recuperated the dogs and put them in thorough trim. The trail they had broken into the country was packed hard by later journeyers. And further, the police had arranged in two or three places deposits of grub for dog and man, and he was traveling light.

They made Sixty Miles, which is a fifty-mile run, on the first day; and the second day saw them booming up the Yukon well on their way to Pelly. But such splendid running was achieved not without great trouble and vexation on the part of Francois. The insidious revolt led by Buck had destroyed the solidarity of the team. It no longer was as one dog leaping in the traces. The encouragement Buck gave the rebels led them into all kinds of petty misdemeanors. No more was Spitz a leader greatly to be feared. The old awe departed, and they grew equal to challenging his authority. Pike robbed him of half a fish one night, and gulped it down under the protection of Buck. Another night Dub and Joe fought Spitz and made him forego the punishment they deserved. And even Billie, the good-natured, was less good-natured, and whined not half so placatingly as in former days. Buck never came near Spitz without snarling and bristling menacingly. In fact, his conduct approached that of a bully, and he was given to swaggering up and down before Spitz’s very nose.

The breaking down of discipline likewise affected the dogs in their relations with one another. They quarrelled and bickered more than ever among themselves, till at times the camp was a howling bedlam. Dave and Sol-leks alone were unaltered, though they were made irritable by the unending squabbling. Francois swore strange barbarous oaths, and stamped the snow in futile rage, and tore his hair. His lash was always singing among the dogs, but it was of small avail. Directly his back was turned they were at it again. He backed up Spitz with his whip, while Buck backed up the remainder of the team. Francois knew he was behind all the trouble, and Buck knew he knew; but Buck was too clever ever again to be caught red-handed. He worked faithfully in the harness, for the toil had become a delight to him; yet it was a greater delight slyly to precipitate a fight amongst his mates and tangle the traces.

At the mouth of the Tahkeena, one night after supper, Dub turned up a snowshoe rabbit, blundered it, and missed. In a second the whole team was in full cry. A hundred yards away was a camp of the Northwest Police, with fifty dogs, huskies all, who joined the chase. The rabbit sped down the river, turned off into a small creek, up the frozen bed of which it held steadily. It ran lightly on the surface of the snow, while the dogs ploughed through by main strength. Buck led the pack, sixty strong, around bend after bend, but he could not gain. He lay down low to the race, whining eagerly, his splendid body flashing forward, leap by leap, in the wan white moonlight. And leap by leap, like some pale frost wraith, the snowshoe rabbit flashed on ahead.

All that stirring of old instincts which at stated periods drives men out from the sounding cities to forest and plain to kill things by chemically propelled leaden pellets, the bloodlust, the joy to kill – all this was Buck’s, only it was infinitely more intimate. He was ranging at the head of the pack, running the wild thing down, the living meat, to kill with his own teeth and wash his muzzle to the eyes in warm blood.

There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad on a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight. He was sounding the deeps of his nature, and of the parts of his nature that were deeper than he, going back into the womb of Time. He was mastered by the sheer surging of life, the tidal wave of being, the perfect joy of each separate muscle, joint, and sinew and that it was everything that was not death, that it was aglow and rampant, expressing itself in movement, flying exultantly under the stars and over the face of dead matter that did not move.

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Happy Birthday, Alexander Hamilton

This is a post written in 2008, years before “Hamilton” mania overtook the world – and don’t get me wrong, I’m so glad it did. I almost can’t believe it’s happened. Thank you Lin-Manuel Miranda. To all of you newcomers, I say, Welcome to a worthy lifelong obsession. Also: Better late than never.

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On this day, in 1755, Alexander Hamilton was born in the British West Indies. He was illegitimate (as John Adams sneered: “the bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar”). His illegitimacy was a stain on his birth he strove to wipe away for the rest of his short life.

Hamilton:

Take mankind in general, they are vicious – their passions may be operated upon. Take mankind as they are, and what are they governed by? Their passions. There may be in every government a few choice spirits, who may act from more worthy motives [but] one great error is that we suppose mankind more honest than they are. Our prevailing passions are ambition and interest. Wise government should avail itself of those passions, to make them subservient to the public good.

Hamilton’s also the one who said, at the end of his 6-hour long speech at the 1787 Constitutional Convention: “Decision is true wisdom.” This is part of the reason why he is one of the most important members of that founding generation – but it is also the reason that people found him terrifying. Abigail Adams warned her husband, “That man is another Bonaparte.”

There is a contradictory dynamic within him that I find so compelling.

Also. He’s a bit hot.

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Here’s a big post I wrote a while back about one of my pet obsessions: the election of 1800. Some awesome information there about this man. Nobody was neutral about him. He was a polarizing kind of guy.

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A couple years ago, the New York Historical Society had a massive Alexander Hamilton exhibit and Bill and I went. It was one of those events in New York when I was so excited to see all of it that I actually felt a bit nervous. You know what really got me? His DESK. I had to walk away because the urge to touch it was too overwhelming. Here’s a re-cap of our trip to the museum. Bill said something funny like, “I think this might be the first time I’ve gone to an exhibit like this where I’m with someone who knows MORE than I do about the topic.”

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The following is a letter the 17-year-old Alexander Hamilton wrote to his father, describing the hurricane that hit St. Croix on August 31, 1772 – one of the worst in the recorded history of the island. A couple of days later, Hamilton showed a copy of this letter to Reverend Knox (a very important person in the story of Alexander Hamilton – a real father figure to the boy.) Knox was so impressed with the prose that he arranged to have it published in the “Gazette”. The letter was so well-received that Knox set the wheels in motion to send Hamilton to the colonies, so that he could get a college-level education. This move changed Hamilton’s life. Here is the letter. It’s riveting:

It began at dusk, at North, and raged very violently ’till ten o’clock. Then ensued a sudden and unexpected interval, which lasted about an hour. Meanwhile the wind was shifting ’round to the southwest … it returned with redoubled fury and continued so ’till near three o’clock in the morning. Good God! What horror and destruction. It’s impossible for me to describe or you to form any idea of it. It seemed as if a total dissolution of nature was taking place. The roaring of the sea and wind, fiery meteors flying about it in the air, the prodigious glare of almost perpetual lightning, the crash of the falling houses, and the ear-piercing shrieks of the distressed were sufficient to strike astonishment into angels.

A great part of the buildings throughout the island are leveled to the ground, almost all the rest very much shattered, several persons killed and numbers utterly ruined, whole families running about the streets unknowing where to find a place of shelter; the sick exposed to the keenness of the water and air without a bed to lie upon or a dry covering to their bodies; and our harbors entirely bare. In a word, misery, in all its hideous shapes, spread over the whole face of the country …

As to my reflections and feelings on this frightful and melancholy ocassion …

Where now, oh! vile worm, is all thy boasted fortitude and resolution? What is become of thine arrogance and self-sufficiency? Why dost thou tremble and stand aghast? How humble, how helpless, how contemptible you now appear. And for why? The jarring of elements — the discord of clouds? Oh! impotent presumptuous fool! Death comes rushing on in triumph, veiled in a mantle of tenfold darkness … On his right hand sits destruction, hurling the winds and belching forth flames: calamity on his left threatening famine, disease and distress of all kinds. And oh! thou wretch, look still a little further. See the gulf of eternal misery open. There mayest thou shortly plunge — the just reward of thy vileness. Alas! whither canst thou fly? Where hide thyself?

I look at my Diary Friday entries – written when I was 17 and hide my head in shame.

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This is from a letter Alexander Hamilton wrote in 1780.

No wise statesman will reject the good from an apprehension of the ill. The truth is, in human affairs, there is no good, pure and unmixed. Every advantage has two sides, and wisdom consists in availing ourselves of the good and guarding as much as possible against the bad…

A national debt, if it is not excessive, will be to us a national blessing. It will be powerful cement of our union. It will also create a necessity for keeping up taxation to such a degree which, without being oppressive, will be a spur to industry.

“A national debt, if it is not excessive, will be to us a national blessing.” Those words went over like a BOMB exploding through the colonies. WHAT IS HE SAYING? WHAT IS HE TALKING ABOUT? IS HE THE DEVIL?

Alexander Hamilton made a six hour speech at the 1787 Constitutional Convention. People scrawled down notes of it, because he spoke without notes (except when he laid out his plan for the Government), so whatever we have of that speech is from those notes. How I wish I had been in that room. It was a rousing call to a strong central government, a rousing call for the states to give up their power and their identities, to submerge themselves into America. It was an insane speech, all things considered. His allies thought he had lost his mind. Another delegate to the Congress described Hamilton as “praised by everybody but supported by none”. Here are some excerpts from his 6-hour speech in Philadlelphia, 1787.

All the passion we see, of avarice, ambition, interest, which govern most individuals and all public bodies, fall into the current of the states and do not flow into the stream of the general national government … How then are all these evils to be avoided? Only by such a complete sovereignty in the general government as will turn all the strong principles and passions to its side.

In the context of the time, it is not surprising at all that people hated Hamilton, and thought he spoke treasonously. They had just thrown OFF the yoke of a monarch who had “complete sovereignty” … and now Hamilton wanted to put the yoke on again? This was heresy,

More:

In every community where industry is encouraged, there will be a division of it into the few and the many. Hence, separate interests will arise. There will be debtors and creditors. Give all power to the many, they will oppress the few. Give all power to the few, they will oppress the many. Both, therefore, ought to have power, that each may defend itself against the other.

Hamilton read aloud from his notes – and what HE proposed as the set-up for the national government is basically what we have to this day (except for the “executive for life” thing.)

He went way too far out with some of his ideas, but that was his role, historically, and I see him in that context. You always need someone like that, someone to be imaginative, bold, push the boundaries OUT. He, as an immigrant, was not attached to any one state in his loyalty. It made a huge difference. He stands out, because of this. There was literally no pause between thought and action with this guy (and that’s why he got into so much trouble.) But great men usually have a fatal flaw in their makeup. If they didn’t have it, they wouldn’t be great at all.

It reminds me of that great EM Forster quote: “Don’t start with proportion. Only prigs do that.”

I believe in my heart that Hamilton was the most far-seeing of the Founders. He saw the world we live in now. He did not see a Utopia. He saw reality. Or, he believed so strongly in that reality that he worked himself to the bone to bring it to pass. At that time, the colonies basically were still an agrarian society, where land was power and prestige. Jefferson couldn’t really imagine any other kind of world. Hamilton did and could. He saw ahead to the industrial revolution. He knew society’s set-up would change drastically, and he wanted the economy to be flexible enough to deal with those changes. Most of the commentary at the time from his contemporaries (all brilliant men in their own right) is along the lines of: “Alexander Hamilton is frightening.” “Hamilton is dangerous and must be stopped.” Etc.

It is almost as though he had dropped in from the future, and people like that always meet resistance.

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Here is the ringing first paragraph of Federalist 1, written by Alexander Hamilton, published on October 27, 1787, in the “New York Independent Journal”m the first of 85 essays (written by Alexander Hamilton mostly, but James Madison wrote Federalist 10 – maybe the most famous of all of them, and the one I go to most often for a re-read – and John Jay contributed 5 essays), eventually known as The Federalist Papers. The purpose of this onslaught was to put the case for the Constitution before the New York public for its review. Here is the first paragraph of the first essay:

After a full experience of the insufficiency of the existing federal government, you are invited to deliberate upon a new Constitution for the United States of America. The subject speaks its own importance, comprehending in its consequences nothing less than the existence of the UNION, the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world.

That prose would have gotten MY attention, as I scanned the “For Sale” ads for ladies hats and buggy whips surrounding it.

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Alexander Hamilton, as Secretary of Treasury, put forth a monumental report to Congress calling for a national bank (this is something he had been pondering for years). He wanted it to be run by private citizens, not the government. The bank had the power to issue paper money. Hamilton opposed the government running the printing presses to produce money. A quote from his report:

The wisdom of the government will be shown in never trusting itself with the use of so seducing and dangerous and expedient.

Brilliant.

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The following anecdote (and quote) is pretty much why people were terrified of Alexander Hamilton, and felt that he should be stopped. To give you the proper context: he was answering criticism from his former Federalist Paper collaborator James Madison that his proposed Bank of America was un-constitutional. Hamilton had asked for a federal charter for the bank, Madison said there was nothing in the Constitution saying that the government should fund corporations. Hamilton pointed out the last article of the Constitution – the one about Congress being able to make “all laws which shall be necessary and proper”. Hamilton felt that that article was sufficient evidence that a charter would be constitutional.

BUT! The way Hamilton summed it all up was not calculated to assuage his enemies who feared his lust for power. He wrote:

Wherever the end is required, the means are authorized.

Gotcha, Machiavelli.

He went on:

If the end be clearly comprehended within any of the specified powers, and if the measure have an obvious relation to that end, and is not forbidden by any particular provision of the Constitution, it may safely be deemed to come within the compass of the national authority.

The story of the turbulent national debate about Hamilton’s financial plan for the country is amazing. I’ve read about it from all sides: Hamilton’s side, of course, but then John Adams’ analysis of it, his letters to Abigail about it, Jefferson’s side of it, Washington’s side of it. If you don’t know all the ins and outs of the debate, I highly recommend delving in. It was truly an incredible time in our nation’s history.

And about the duel. The thought of a “glorious” death permeates his personal letters from when he was a teenager. (“I wish there was a war.”) There are times when he is so cynical about his fellow man (due, in part, to his horrific upbringing) that he wants to end it all. He loses hope. He plunges from the heights into despair. Much of what happened to him came out of this death-wish (maybe even a sense that he probably would not make it to old age, all things considered). While he was here on earth, he acted like he could HEAR the clock ticking down on his time left. There were times when he behaved in an absolutely incomprehensible manner (the Reynolds pamphlet. It’s like Mary Astor’s sex journal. You read it and think, “Dude, why … WHY … are you publishing this?? Just say ‘Yup. I transgressed and was also a victim of extortion.’ Don’t walk us through it with purple prose like ‘She led me up to the darkness of the bedroom …'” Like: STOP.) A blaze of martyrdom seemed to appeal. He behaved with reckless abandon. He wrote a screed on John Adams, while Adams was president, saying that Adams was mentally incompetent, not fit for office. Political suicide. It was so wrongheaded that you gasp at Hamilton’s self-destructiveness. It was the death knell for his career. His makeup was such that he followed his impulses – and when he was on? He was on like nobody else. But when he misjudged a situation? He messed up big. His battle with Burr was fierce and long-standing. Honor was a huge deal to Hamilton. He could not let an insult stand. He could not. Maybe because of his illegitimacy, his harrowing early life. He was very very sensitive to any slight. He felt disrespected by Washington. His resentment grew during his time as secretary. He wanted to see ACTION in the war, not just sit and be a clerk, and write 150 letters a day. There is one famous incident where Hamilton kept Washington waiting for 5 minutes, because he had to talk to somebody else, and Washington was very angry and told Hamilton so publicly. Hamilton was so insulted by this that he asked to be released from his duties immediately. It was a total breach for him. He could not be insulted. If you insulted him by throwing a tiny arrow his way, he would respond with 25 cannon balls.

He had the presence of mind though, at least early in his career, to know that Washington (and what he stood for) was very important to America and the union, so he tried to keep his personal feelings out of it. He was very concerned, when he left Washington’s employ, that the real reasons for his departure be kept private (he mentions it in a couple of letters). Washington’s image as a universally beloved leader was more important than Hamilton airing his grievances. Later in life, though, Hamilton was unable to hold his personal feelings back in such situations, and more often than not, he would make his feelings public. None of this was a casual thing for him. Honor, his integrity, his character – his very NAME – was something to be defended to the death. It HAD to be that way.

On July 10, 1804, Alexander Hamilton wrote the following letter to his wife Eliza:

My beloved Eliza
Mrs. Mitchel is the person in the world to whom as a friend I am under the greatest Obligations. I have not hitherto done my duty to her. But resolved to repair my omission as much as possible, I have encouraged her to come to this Country and intend, if it shall be in my power to render the Evening of her days comfortable. But if it shall please God to put this out of my power and to inable you hereafter to be of service to her, I entreat you to do it and to treat her with the tenderness of a Sister.

This is my second letter.

The Scruples of a Christian have determined me to expose my own life to any extent rather than subject my self to the guilt of taking the life of another. This must increase my hazards & redoubles my pangs for you. But you had rather I should die innocent than live guilty. Heaven can preserve me and I humbly hope will but in the contrary event I charge you to remember that you are a Christian. God’s Will be done. The will of a merciful God must be good.

Once more Adieu My Darling darling Wife

AH
Tuesday Evening 10 oClock

Joseph Ellis, in his wonderful book Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, opens the book with the story of the duel between Hamilton and Aaron Burr on the riverside plain of Weehawken. You know, down the street from where I live.

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The statue of Alexander Hamilton, right near my house. It hovers above the dueling plain where he took the bullet that would be fatal. It’s a beautiful spot. Observation: This photo was taken when there was still a hole in the downtown skyline. My only complaint is: I wish he were facing New York, not turning his back. He helped create New York.

Joseph Ellis closes his chapter on The Duel with these words:

Oliver Wendell Holmes once observed that “a great man represents a strategic point in the campaign of history, and part of his greatness consists of his being there.” Both Burr and Hamilton thought of themselves as great men who happened to come of age at one of those strategic points in the campaign of history called the American revolutionary era. By the summer of 1804, history had pretty much passed them by. Burr had alienated Jefferson and the triumphant Republican party by his disloyalty as a vice president and had lost by a landslide in his bid to become a Federalist governor of New York. Hamilton had not held national office for nine years and the Federalist cause he had championed was well on its way to oblivion. Even in his home state of New York, the Federalists were, as John Quincy Adams put it, “a minority, and of that minority, only a minority were admirers and partisans of Mr. Hamilton.” Neither man had much of a political future.

But by being there beneath the plains of Weehawken for their interview, they managed to make a dramatic final statement about the time of their time. Honor mattered because character mattered. And character mattered because the fate of the American experiment with republican government still required virtuous leaders to survive. Eventually, the United States might develop into a nation of laws and established institutions capable of surviving corrupt or incompetent public officials. But it was not there yet. It still required honorable and virtuous leaders to endure. Both Burr and Hamilton came to the interview because they wished to be regarded as part of such company.

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And finally, here is an excerpt from Ron Chernow’s magesterial biography Alexander Hamilton:

Few figures in American history aroused such visceral love or loathing as Alexander Hamilton. To this day, he seems trapped in a crude historical cartoon that pits “Jeffersonian democracy” against “Hamiltonian aristocracy.” For Jefferson and his followers, wedded to their vision of an agrarian Eden, Hamilton was the American Mephistopheles, the proponent of such devilish contrivances as banks, factories, and stock exchanges. They demonized him as a slavish pawn of the British Crown, a closet monarchist, a Machiavellian intriguer, a would-be Caesar. Noah Webster contended that Hamilton’s “ambition, pride, and overbearing temper” had destined him “to be the evil genius of this country.” Hamilton’s powerful vision of American nationalism, with states subordinate to a strong central government and led by a vigorous executive branch, aroused fears of a reversion to royal British ways. His seeming solicitude for the rich caused critics to portray him as a snobbish tool of plutocrats who was contemptuous of the masses. For another group of naysayers, Hamilton’s unswerving faith in a professional military converted him into a potential despot. “From the first to the last words he wrote,” concluded historian Henry Adams, “I read always the same Napoleonic kind of adventuredom.” Even some Hamilton admirers have been unsettled by a faint tincture of something foreign in this West Indian transplant; Woodrow Wilson grudgingly praised Hamilton as “a very great man, ut not a great American.”
Yet many distinguished commentators have echoed Eliza Hamilton’s lament that justice has not been done to her Hamilton/ He has tended to lack the glittering multivolumed biographies that have burnished the fame of other founders. The British statesman Lord Bryce singled out Hamilton as the one founding father who had not received his due from posterity. In The American Commonwealth, he observed, “One cannot note the disappearance of this brilliant figure, to Europeans the most interesting in the early history of the Republic, without the remark that his countrymen seem to have never, either in his lifetime or afterwards, duly recognized is splendid gifts.” During the robust era of Progressive Republicanism, marked by brawny nationalism and energetic government, Theodore Roosevelt took up the cudgels and declared Hamilton “the most brilliant American statesman who ever lived, possessing the loftiest and keenest intellect of his time.” His White House successor, William Howard Taft, likewise embracedf Hamilton as “our greatest constructive statesman.” 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. He and James Madison were the prime movers behind the summoning of the Constitutional Convention and the chief authors of that classic gloss on the national charter, The Federalist, which Hamilton supervised. 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 nationa together.

Hamilton’s crowded years as treasury secretary scarcely exhaust the epic story of his short life, which was stuffed with high drama. From his illegitimate birth on Nevis to his bloody downfall in Weehawken, Hamilton’s life was so tumultuous that only an audacious novelist could have dreamed it up. He embodied an enduring archetype: the obscure immigrant who comes to America, re-creates himself, and succeeds despite a lack of proper birth and breeding. The saga of his metamorphosis from an anguished clerk on St. Croix to the reigning presence in George Washington’s cabinet offers both a gripping personal story and a panoramic view of the formative years of the republic. Except for Washington, nobody stood closer to the center of American politics from 1776 to 1800 or cropped up at more turning points. More than anyone else, the omnipresent Hamilton galvanized, inspired, and scandalized the newborn nation, serving as the flash point for pent-up conflicts of class, geography, race, religion, and ideology. His contemporaries often seemed defined by how they reacted to the political gauntlets that he threw down repeatedly with such defiant panache.

Hamilton was an exuberant genius who performed at a fiendish pace and must have produced the maximum number of words that a human being can scratch out in forty-nine years. If promiscuous with his political opinions, however, he was famously reticent about his private life, especially his squalid Caribbean boyhood. No other founder had to grapple with such shame and misery, and his early years have remained wrapped in more mystery than those of any other major American statesman. While not scanting his vibrant intellectual life, I have tried to gather anecdotal material that will bring this cerebral man to life as both a public and a private figure. Charming and impetuous, romantic and witty, dashing and headstrong, Hamilton offers the biographer an irresistible psychological study. For all his superlative mental gifts, he was afflicted with a touchy ego that made him querulous and fatally combative. He never outgrew the stigma of his illegitimacy, and his exquisite tact often gave way to egregious failures of judgment that left even his keenest admirers aghast. If capable of numerous close friendships, he also entered into titanic feuds with Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Monroe, and Burr.

The magnitude of Hamilton’s feats as treasury secretary has overshadowed many other facets of his life: clerk, college student, youthful poet, essayist, artillery captain, wartime adjutant to Washington, battlefield hero, congressman, abolitionist, Bank of New York founder, state assemblyman, member of the Constitutional Convention and New York Ratifying Convention, orator, lawyer, polemicist, educator, patron saint of the New York Evening Post, foreign-policy theorist, and major general in the army. Boldly uncompromising, he served as catalyst for the emergence of the first political parties and as the intellectual fountainhead for one of them, the Federalists. He was a pivotal force in four consecutive presidential elections and defined much of America’s political agenda during the Washington and Adams administrations, leaving copious commentary on virtually every salient issue of the day.

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Alexander Hamilton’s grave. Taken by yours truly. I go sometimes to pay my respects. It’s a beautiful cemetery.

A complex man – to be studied, discussed, fought about, celebrated. He is still relevant.

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