Thursday, February 26, 2009
People who don't know what to get me for a birthday or Christmas gift often give me a bookstore gift card, which is just about the perfect thing to give me--so maybe they do know. I recently took a fistful of accumulated cards to a big chain bookstore (rhymes with "Forders"; don't be like me, support your heroic local independent bookseller!) and traded them for a nice stack of books I've had my eye on for a while, one of which was Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson.
[Later edit: Even worse, I just remembered that I bought it at Costco. What a shameful hypocrite I am. You may think that a writer whose book shows up on a forklift at a warehouse store has hit the jackpot, and there's a lot to be said for pushing volume, but the wholesale discounts Costco gets are so generous that the author earns only pennies per copy. Sorry, Mr. Isaacson.]
Good book. As a measure of its goodness, consider that after I finished reading the 493 pages of text, I went on to read the 69 pages of notes and footnotes in the back. It was not, however, good enough to compel me to read the Index.
Franklin has always had a lot of appeal to me. He was a Renaissance Man and, in some sense, the Prototypical American--the model for an educated, practical, middle-class democrat that hadn't been invented yet. Isaacson casts Franklin as a key transitional figure who married a Puritan work ethic stripped of religious dogma (though not unreligious, Franklin was unusually tolerant of all denominations) to the reason of the Enlightenment. He was one of the few Founding Fathers with working-class roots, which gave him unique faith in the ability of the "middling" people to govern themselves. He was the first rock star, already world famous for his writing, political acumen, and scientific experiments by the time of the Revolution, when he was a 70-year-old man idolized by star-struck young punks like Jefferson. Moreover, as Isaacson makes clear, Franklin worked very hard to create and maintain his image, with an entirely modern self awareness. The Ben Franklin we remember is partly a character that the man fashioned himself. Madonna has nothing on ol' Ben.
In fact, Isaacson makes the point that, of all the Founding Fathers, Franklin was the one who speaks most directly to us. He was plain-spoken and witty. Franklin's the guy you'd want to have a beer with. He'd buy. Isaacson quotes journalist David Brooks, who wrote, "He'd probably join the chorus of all those techno-enthusiasts who claim that the Internet and biotech breakthroughs are going to transform life on Earth wonderfully; he shared that passion for progress. At the same time, he'd be completely at home with the irony and gentle cynicism that is the prevailing conventional tone in those buildings . . . One can easily imagine him traipsing through a shopping mall enchanted by the cheerful abundance and the clever marketing."
However, Issacson's book is no hagiography. He also illuminates Franklin's faults: his hypocrisy in preaching frugal homespun values while living the high life in French chateaus; his arrogance and vanity, softened only by Franklin's sly acknowledgement that he already knew that about himself; and his generally shabby treatment of his wife and family, whom he abandoned for decades at a time and treated quite coldly while lavishing affection on surrogate families of landladies and lackeys he accumulated overseas.
The book accomplished something I look for in a good historical piece, which is to lift the weight of inevitability. It is very difficult to relive the past uncolored by the knowledge of how it's all going to turn out. Isaacson captures the uncertainty and risk of starting a revolution against the greatest imperial power on Earth not knowing that it would succeed. His descriptions of the diplomatic intrigue, power plays, personality clashes, and spycraft going on in London, Paris, and America are riveting and, again, thoroughly modern. He brings poignant life to players like British General William Howe, a Franklin acquaintance who was sympathetic to the Colonies' cause and spent the years before the war maneuvering to maintain peace, only to command ground troops against the colonists when he failed.
I want to mention two bits that struck me in particular. Isaacson describes how Franklin edited Jefferson's first draft of the Declaration of Independence, striking out "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable," and substituting "We hold these truths to be self-evident." What seems a simple matter of word choice becomes, in Isaacson's analysis, an insight into how two philosophies collided in the late 1700s. "By using the word 'sacred,' Jefferson had asserted, intentionally or not, that the principle in question--the equality of men and their endowment by their creator with inalienable rights--was an assertion of religion. Franklin's edit turned it instead into an assertion of rationality." Unique among his contemporaries, Franklin argued that equality and freedom should be as obvious and incontestable as the Pythagorean Theorem. That's powerful.
Another bit that struck me is that Isaacson finally explained Franklin's kite-in-a-thunderstorm experiment to my satisfaction. I suppose I could've looked it up before, but the physics major in me has always been bothered by not understanding exactly what Franklin did, why he did it, what tying a key to the kite string was supposed to accomplish or prove, and, frankly, how he survived. An explanation would take too long (and spoil the fun!); suffice it to say that for the first time since I heard the tale as a child, I got it. And learned that Franklin was even cleverer (and luckier) than I gave him credit for.
I had some quibbles with Isaacson's book. The cast of characters grows quite large, and occasional reminders of people's relationships would've been helpful ("wait, is Lord Rumplepot a friend, foe, foe who became a friend, or friend who became a foe?"). Though the book is a straightforward chronology, I thought Isaacson's choice to cover some facets of Franklin's life in lumps--this section is about Franklin the printer, this section is about Franklin the scientist--broke the flow of the narrative and left me without the context of how/where/when those pieces fit into the big picture. But overall, I appreciated Benjamin Franklin: An American Life very much and recommend it to anyone curious about the man and his times.