Natalie Gadbois: Hamilton, Ruth and I
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about history. How stories are told and repeated. How people become figures and figures become idols. How others are forgotten, their lives only lived once in their own bodies rather than in the memories of generations.
This newfound, morbid preoccupation with legacy? All due to one man: our least-appreciated founding father, Alexander Hamilton. Good ol’ Alex is the subject of a new Broadway musical that is breaking revenue records and taking over Spotify accounts. “Hamilton” is a hip-hop opera composed by, written and starring buoyant auteur Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of Tony-award-winning “In the Heights.” It tells Hamilton’s incredible unsung story, from a young orphan living in the Caribbean, as George Washington’s aide de camp in the revolution, the creator of the Federalist Papers, the first Secretary of the Treasury (and creator of big bad Wall Street as we know it), to millions of other accomplishments, so much that Miranda has to rap in order to get them all out. It’s really, really good.
The final song of the musical, taking place after Hamilton’s death, is a soft, wandering ballad sung by his ever-patient wife Eliza. “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” is Eliza’s promise to continue working in her husband’s honor, so that he is never forgotten; it’s also Lin-Manuel’s attempt to remember the female voices in Hamilton’s life, those that Hamilton himself seemed to often forget.
“Hamilton” is unapologetically the story of a man — a man who is brilliant, rash, tireless, selfish and ultimately vulnerable. And he is a man in a world ruled by men, surrounded by male compatriots and adversaries. The women in his life are love interests; one a confidant, one a supporter, one a temptress. Lin-Manuel does what he can with the little history recorded of the women in Hamilton’s life, but ultimately what we know of them is only in reference to Hamilton. History doesn’t tell their story.
As I obsessively listened to “Hamilton,” I was also reading Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik’s recent biography of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Fueled by Tumblr public policy nerds, 82-year-old Supreme Court Justice Ginsberg has become something of a celebrity over the past few years, most significantly after a few blistering dissents in conservative decisions made by the court. Notorious RBG, as the Internet calls her, is Millennial-famous now, but this octogenarian was badass long before we all were born.
This — this — was a story that needed to be told.
A woman who passed groundbreaking cases in equal rights for women and men when it came to family leave and employment discrimination, who intelligently (and presciently) argued against Roe v. Wade, believing that a woman’s right to choose was only secure when there wasn’t an opportunity for loopholes in the law. A woman who was only one of two other women in her class at Columbia Law, yet who graduated first in her class. A woman of whom her daughter once fondly spoke: “Mommy does the thinking, and daddy does the cooking.” A modern marvel, a winged herald.
It was thrilling to read about a woman who had shaped the country during my own lifetime. In the constant rebirth of a nation, she is in some ways a founding mother, helping develop a new system to foster our diverse, complex country. It was refreshing to read of her husband Marty’s constant support and deference to her intelligence and industriousness. It was refreshing too, to see Marty, a wildly successful tax attorney in his own right, be discussed only in reference to Ruth. Because this was her story.
I sat in the movie theater, tears pooling into my woolen scarf, Mom holding my hand tight. “Brooklyn,” about a young Irish girl immigrating to the United States in the 1950s and starring the luminous Saorise Ronan, wasn’t an especially tragic movie. I wasn’t crying because of a great death or misfortune that had fallen upon Eilis, who was smart and scrappy and thriving.
I was crying because I was able to see myself in her story. While there have been many films created about those immigrating to the United States, this one is different. Eilis’ freckled face fills every frame of the film, as she says goodbye to her family, becomes seasick on the boat over and homesick once there, as she speaks in her meek brogue at the department store where she works. As she falls in love, and as she makes achingly difficult decisions. This is not a family saga, nor even a two-sided romance. This is purely Eilis’s story.
Based on Colm Tóibín’s novel of the same name, “Brooklyn” is complete fiction. Eilis isn’t a Ruth, nor is she a Hamilton, real figures with real impacts on American history. In a world where the stories of the powerful are told most often, and men’s a large percentage of those, Eilis’s story is small. But as another young Irish girl (admittedly a few generations removed), who is soon moving thousands of miles away from her family, Eilis’s story beat more powerfully in my chest than Hamilton or Ginsburg’s triumphs ever could. And I’m goddamn grateful someone told it, because stories like Eilis’s are usually the ones we never get to hear.