Hamilton the man and Hamilton the musical are both concerned with historiography and legacy—how we view, understand, and remember the past. As Aaron Burr notes in “The World was Wide Enough,” “History obliterates in every picture it paints.” You have no control over who tells your story, and after death, your story is all that’s left. What’s left other than the memories we helped make before we exited the stage? What is our ultimate legacy beyond the things we create and the words we leave behind?
Is it any wonder then that Hamilton would write like he was running out of time? He was. So are we all.
I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago when my wife and I had the amazing opportunity to see In The Heights here in Richmond. That musical came from the genius mind of Lin-Manuel Miranda before he gave us Hamilton: An American Musical. And, at the end of In The Heights, there’s a part of the Finale where we hear a similar theme of legacy.
At the end of the show, the main character, who had been dreaming of a life out of the rat race in New York City and in his parents homeland of the Dominican Republic, reaches the realization that he needs to stay in New York. He needs to be the one to “tell the stories of the neighborhood, his home.”
So it seems pretty clear that Miranda is drawn to this theme of legacy, and more specifically who gets to tell our story after we are gone.
In a post from a few months ago, I wrote about pigeonholing myself and finding my lane as a scholar. I continue thinking about that, but Lin-Manuel Miranda now has me thinking about it from the perspective of legacy. When I’m done (formally, at least) professionally, what will my legacy as a scholar be?
Maybe I’m just being a typically neurotic Jew1, but I can’t stop thinking about this existential question.
Increasingly, I think we have more control over our legacy than in the past. That is, we can be conscious of the digital bread crumbs and artifacts we produce and leave behind, and we can even attempt to curate them on the fly in the form of ePortfolios and by tending to things like our Google Scholar profile (which I have failed to tend to). This gets to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s questions about who ultimately gets to tell our story. More and more, we can shape how that story gets told.
But, mostly, I believe that our legacy is not something we can really control; it is in the perceptions of others. All we can do is do good things and good work and hope that people remember us for having done that. I often tell myself that good things happen for good people who do good work.
Thus, my focus moving forward is on being a good person and doing good work. The rest will take care of itself2.