“Hamilton” and Digital Humanities

Posted by: on June 24, 2016   |Comments (0)|Digital Humanities

The musical Hamilton, winner of a slew of awards including (most recently) 11 Tonys, has gained notice as a vehicle for educating children and teens about the early history of the United States. Public interest in the Founding Fathers’ lives and views is high — at the moment, Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton is at the top of the NYT’s paperback nonfiction bestseller list, where it has resided for 35 weeks, and also appears on the e-book nonfiction bestseller list, while Nathaniel Philbrick’s new book on George Washington has a place on the hardcover list. Some die-hard musical fans have moved beyond the Chernow biography into primary sources like Aaron Burr’s journals and John Laurens’s letters.

It’s not only the musical’s content that’s gained a spot in the public eye, though — its critical acclaim and widespread popularity have meant that DH-esque projects relating to its lyrics have attracted mainstream attention of a kind that similar projects on other subjects rarely get. Raplyzer, Eric Malmi’s 2015 program analyzing assonance and other rhymes in rap lyrics, was covered in a handful of sources as a light “computers, whatever will they do next” story — the non-specialist sources largely focused on the aspect of the project where the computer generated raps of its own, rather than on its analysis. (It goes without saying that rhyme analysis tools developed by literature scholars for poetry, like this one by Elise Thorsen and David J. Birnbaum, don’t even get that media attention.) Meanwhile, in 2016, Hamilton’s reputation led the Wall Street Journal itself to develop an algorithm similar to Malmi’s to use on the show’s lyrics; due to the show’s broad appeal, this was widely shared online.

Although the website Genius, a database of rap lyrics and other content with crowdsourced annotations, had been widely covered before its association with Hamilton, observers took particular note of the speed and thoroughness with which the site’s users marked up the show’s libretto. Genius’s strength, as it related to Hamilton specifically, lay in the breadth of knowledge of its crowdsourcing crowd: hip-hop aficionados picked up the references to Grandmaster Flash, Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z, fans coming from a musical theatre background noticed the shout-outs to South Pacific and The Last Five Years, and history buffs provided more context for details that are elided or come up only in passing, like the Battle of Fort Necessity, the Whiskey Rebellion, Hercules Mulligan’s slave Cato, or New York’s prominence in the 1770s. These annotations help a reader understand the musical both as a 21st-century document and as a narrative of the 18th-19th century.

Crowdsourced digital humanities projects frequently deal with much larger corpora than this, which need to be put into indexable form before they can be used by researchers. Such projects are therefore less subjective and less demanding of subject area knowledge. A selection of crowdsourced DH projects:

Hamilton fans who would like to read the title character’s writings can find them at Founders Online. A few that may be of interest:

  • “The Farmer Refuted”, actually far more eloquently insulting than its paraphrase in the musical
  • First preserved letter from Hamilton to Eliza Schuyler, his future wife, apologizing for having offered to drive her and a friend to a party before remembering that he was not a good enough driver to do so
  • Draft of an Opinion on the Constitutionality of an Act to Establish a Bank, one of Hamilton’s most noted political successes. This draft, with cross-outs and additions, is an interesting look at Hamilton’s thought process!
  • Letters between Hamilton and Aaron Burr (1, 2, 3, 4) leading up to their duel, signed — indeed — “I have the honor to be your obedient servant, A. Hamilton/A. Burr”
  • And many more!

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Posted by: on June 24, 2016   |Comments (0)|Digital Humanities