Friday, February 17, 2012

Reads for Fun: Walter Isaacson's "Benjamin Franklin"

It's been a while since I did one of these entries, because I went off my non-fiction kick for a few months. However, when I saw this one for a good price at the local used bookstore, I couldn't resist.

Ben Franklin is a highly popular figure, and we all know the stories like the old "kite in a storm" (which he actually did as a middle aged man, not an old man, as is often seen). But of course, the rich detail of his life doesn't get around much, and this being my first look at it, I had a number of surprises. (One of the lesser ones was that Franklin suffered from both gout and -- boy, do I know this one well -- kidney stones.)

For one thing, although I knew Franklin had spent some time in France, I was unaware that he spent 15 years of his life -- just prior to 1776 -- in England, trying among other things to broker a peace with the colonies. I was aware that he was married, but was unaware that his relationship with his wife Deborah was as, well, "shallow" as it was -- by this I mean, by way of comparison to some other figures I've reported on here, such as George Custer and U. S. Grant. Franklin was apparently fond of his wife, but not so much so that he didn't hesitate to leave her behind in America all those years, and that he even didn't return when his home was being threatened by riots, or even when Deborah died. (To be fair, he asked Deborah to accompany him, but out of some apparent unreasoning fear, she declined sea travel -- and spent nearly all of her life in a small area around their home in Philadelphia.)

And of course, there are the many accomplishments of Franklin; the inventions (bifocals, lightning rods, etc), the political involvement (editing Jefferson's draft of the Declaration; helping broker the construction of the Constitution), and the voluminous writings (Poor Richard's Almanac, various parodies and satires). There is a positive sense of Franklin as an eclectic culturual superman; balanced, however, not only by his less than stellar treatment of his family, but by his jocular flirtations and occasional sexual indiscretions (one of which fathered his son William illegitimately).

Finally, there is Franklin's effort to basically invent his own religious faith; he apparently never (by his own admission) investigated Christianity. He also advised Thomas Paine to keep his work under wraps for a few years -- naturally, I'd say he should have told Paine to trash it altogether. However, when it came to religion, Franklin was far more interested in tolerance than truth, so it is doubtful he would have done that.

Franklin is a fascinating figure, to be sure -- and although Isaacson is not a professional historian, he does a good job digging out sources and presenting his accounts clearly. Well worth a look.

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