The importance of the first reader

Eliza Hamilton

Every writer has, or ought to have, a more or less special first reader. For me it is my wife.

My wife is the first person to see every article I write for The Economist and every draft of my book manuscript. (I don’t show her my blog posts or emails, obviously, which may explain why those are so much worse.)

This is a very important and intimate relationship. The first reader is, in effect, the first editor, and also the sanity test, the acoustics check, the aesthetic focus group and the umpire of taste.

The first reader must be so confident of the underlying relationship as to be above flattery and fear of (lasting) repercussions.

Both writer and first reader must protect their credibility. My wife is probably most impressed with me when she gives a brutal but vague critique of something I have written … and I come back to her shortly after, having done even more brutal violence to my own words. This is known as “crucifying your darlings,” and it is what gives me credibility.

So it is fun to learn how the great writers of the past viewed that relationship.

Molière apparently tested his writings on his nurse to get her reaction. And Alexander Hamilton, my favorite Founding Father as well as by far the most prolific writer among them, had his wife, Eliza Hamilton. (Get ready for a new thread on Hamilton soon!)

On page 508 of this fantastic biography of Hamilton (recommended by Thomas Stazyk), Eliza recollects, 40 years after the fact, how her husband wrote George Washington’s famous farewell address. (Yes, most of “Washington’s” writings are in fact Hamilton’s.)

He was in the habit of calling me to sit with him that he might read to me as he wrote, in order, as he said, to discover how it sounded upon the ear and making the remark, “My dear Eliza, you must be to me what Moliere’s old nurse was to him.” The whole or nearly all the “Address” was read to me by him as he wrote it and a greater part, if not all, was written by him in my presence.

I probably appreciate more than most people how important Eliza Hamilton therefore was for American and world history.

Bookmark and Share