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Review: The Hamilton Affair, by Elizabeth Cobbs
Arcade, 2016. 403 pp. $26

He’s illegitimate, an orphan born to poverty in St. Croix; she’s the daughter of one of upstate New York’s first families. He, though a devoted family man who yearns for the warm, close-knit hearth he never had, loves nothing more than a fight, whether on a battlefield or in a political assembly. She, though she picks up the pieces — her lot as a woman — resents her husband’s role as a lightning rod and correctly predicts that they’ll suffer for it.

This is the romance between Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler, and a tragic, touching tale it is. Cobbs begins the narrative with each protagonist as a child. Alexander struggles against the shame of his birth, and you don’t need to be told (though Cobbs does) that he’ll grow up touchy about his honor, in an era when the concept already has a rigid, constraining definition.

James Sharples’s pastel portrait of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, 1795 (courtesy Smithsonian Institution, via Wikimedia Commons)

Meanwhile, Eliza feels like the odd one out too, awkward, unschooled, incapable of knowing what to say or how to act. An early passage recounts her visit with her father to a conclave of the Six Nations:

The shadowy interior smelled of wood smoke and roasting meat. Shelves burdened with gourds and lidded baskets lined the walls, and ears of drying maize tied by their silks hung from the rafters. Groups of men lounged on rugs, some made from bearskin, others from cloth. The translator showed them to a bench facing a low table made from a single plank. Thank goodness, Eliza thought, since she hadn’t the faintest idea how to sit on a bearskin with the dignity she knew her father expected.

The description reveals a major strength of The Hamilton Affair. Cobbs, a noted historian, renders the scenery, sensations of everyday life, mores, and issues in vivid, economical prose. You can see, for example, how the North-South divide over slavery, banking, manufacturing, trade, and foreign policy crops up the minute the Revolution ends, setting up the Civil War. Cobbs does a great service paying due homage to Hamilton, whom I had always thought a man of ability but an elitist. I’ve now learned that this is the viewpoint his detractors left to history, because they had the last word.

But it’s how he got those enemies that makes Cobbs’s narrative of interest. Her Hamilton doesn’t suffer a fool gladly, but there’s much more to it. How ironic that his opponents cast him as beholden to patrician interests when they’re the patricians — the Virginia planters like Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, or the New York gentry like Burr or Clinton. As a largely self-taught polymath, a nobody who rises to be Washington’s right hand—his accomplishments are truly mind-boggling–Hamilton poses a threat to men who feel they have the right to rule. Throw in his intense dislike of slavery, and he’s doomed.

What a fascinating story, but as a novel, The Hamilton Affair seldom escapes a mechanical, ordained feel. Eliza, a woman much put-upon, would have been much more sympathetic (rather than an object of pity) had she more depth, as in a serious flaw or three. She represents important feminist ideals before they had that name, but she’d symbolize them all the better as a rounded character.

The narrative structure is the crucial weakness, though. Cobbs chooses key dramatic events for many chapters, which is fine, but the intent to cover her protagonists’ entire lives sets up gaps of time and circumstance, which in turn involves playing catch-up so that the reader doesn’t get lost. As a consequence, the author throws dozens of facts into dialogue and internal narrative, which land with a dull thud; and many chapters start at pivotal moments, only to backtrack, covering so much material that the forward narrative stalls. It’s just too much to fit, especially when the two principals don’t meet until about page 120.

If fact, description, and the march of history take precedence here, that leaves less space for emotions, and Cobbs surrenders to the temptation of telling rather than showing them, even at make-or-break moments. During the courtship, for instance, when Hamilton sees that he can’t put off telling Eliza about his birth and early life, you’d think he’d feel intensely pent-up. Here’s a man passionately in love with a beautiful, adventuresome, understanding young woman, yet he fears she’ll reject him once she knows the truth of his origins. This emotional moment, surely among the most significant of Hamilton’s life, receives a brief, rote paragraph.

I’ll say this for The Hamilton Affair: The book prompts me to put Ron Chernow’s highly regarded biography of the great man on my to-be-read pile. But as fiction, Cobbs’s novel tries to tell too much, and winds up showing too little.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.