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Benjamin Franklin: An American Life [Format Kindle]

Walter Isaacson

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Chapter One: Benjamin Franklin and the Invention of America

His arrival in Philadelphia is one of the most famous scenes in autobiographical literature: the bedraggled 17-year-old runaway, cheeky yet with a pretense of humility, straggling off the boat and buying three puffy rolls as he wanders up Market Street. But wait a minute. There's something more. Peel back a layer and we can see him as a 65-year-old wry observer, sitting in an English country house, writing this scene, pretending it's part of a letter to his son, an illegitimate son who has become a royal governor with aristocratic pretensions and needs to be reminded of his humble roots.

A careful look at the manuscript peels back yet another layer. Inserted into the sentence about his pilgrim's progress up Market Street is a phrase, written in the margin, in which he notes that he passed by the house of his future wife, Deborah Read, and that "she, standing at the door, saw me and thought I made, as I certainly did, a most awkward ridiculous appearance." So here we have, in a brief paragraph, the multilayered character known so fondly to his author as Benjamin Franklin: as a young man, then seen through the eyes of his older self, and then through the memories later recounted by his wife. It's all topped off with the old man's deft little affirmation -- "as I certainly did" -- in which his self-deprecation barely cloaks the pride he felt regarding his remarkable rise in the world.

Benjamin Franklin is the founding father who winks at us. George Washington's colleagues found it hard to imagine touching the austere general on the shoulder, and we would find it even more so today. Jefferson and Adams are just as intimidating. But Ben Franklin, that ambitious urban entrepreneur, seems made of flesh rather than of marble, addressable by nickname, and he turns to us from history's stage with eyes that twinkle from behind those newfangled spectacles. He speaks to us, through his letters and hoaxes and autobiography, not with orotund rhetoric but with a chattiness and clever irony that is very contemporary, sometimes unnervingly so. We see his reflection in our own time.

He was, during his eighty-four-year-long life, America's best scientist, inventor, diplomat, writer, and business strategist, and he was also one of its most practical, though not most profound, political thinkers. He proved by flying a kite that lightning was electricity, and he invented a rod to tame it. He devised bifocal glasses and clean-burning stoves, charts of the Gulf Stream and theories about the contagious nature of the common cold. He launched various civic improvement schemes, such as a lending library, college, volunteer fire corps, insurance association, and matching grant fund-raiser. He helped invent America's unique style of homespun humor and philosophical pragmatism. In foreign policy, he created an approach that wove together idealism with balance-of-power realism. And in politics, he proposed seminal plans for uniting the colonies and creating a federal model for a national government.

But the most interesting thing that Franklin invented, and continually reinvented, was himself. America's first great publicist, he was, in his life and in his writings, consciously trying to create a new American archetype. In the process, he carefully crafted his own persona, portrayed it in public, and polished it for posterity.

Partly, it was a matter of image. As a young printer in Philadelphia, he carted rolls of paper through the streets to give the appearance of being industrious. As an old diplomat in France, he wore a fur cap to portray the role of backwoods sage. In between, he created an image for himself as a simple yet striving tradesman, assiduously honing the virtues -- diligence, frugality, honesty -- of a good shopkeeper and beneficent member of his community.

But the image he created was rooted in reality. Born and bred a member of the leather-aproned class, Franklin was, at least for most of his life, more comfortable with artisans and thinkers than with the established elite, and he was allergic to the pomp and perks of a hereditary aristocracy. Throughout his life he would refer to himself as

"B. Franklin, printer."

From these attitudes sprang what may be Franklin's most important vision: an American national identity based on the virtues and values of its middle class. Instinctively more comfortable with democracy than were some of his fellow founders, and devoid of the snobbery that later critics would feel toward his own shopkeeping values, he had faith in the wisdom of the common man and felt that a new nation would draw its strength from what he called "the middling people." Through his self-improvement tips for cultivating personal virtues and his civic-improvement schemes for furthering the common good, he helped to create, and to celebrate, a new ruling class of ordinary citizens.

The complex interplay among various facets of Franklin's character -- his ingenuity and unreflective wisdom, his Protestant ethic divorced from dogma, the principles he held firm and those he was willing to compromise -- means that each new look at him reflects and refracts the nation's changing values. He has been vilified in romantic periods and lionized in entrepreneurial ones. Each era appraises him anew, and in doing so reveals some assessments of itself.

Franklin has a particular resonance in twenty-first-century America. A successful publisher and consummate networker with an inventive curiosity, he would have felt right at home in the information revolution, and his unabashed striving to be part of an upwardly mobile meritocracy made him, in social critic David Brooks's phrase, "our founding Yuppie." We can easily imagine having a beer with him after work, showing him how to use the latest digital device, sharing the business plan for a new venture, and discussing the most recent political scandals or policy ideas. He would laugh at the latest joke about a priest and a rabbi, or about a farmer's daughter. We would admire both his earnestness and his self-aware irony. And we would relate to the way he tried to balance, sometimes uneasily, the pursuit of reputation, wealth, earthly virtues, and spiritual values.

Some who see the reflection of Franklin in the world today fret about a shallowness of soul and a spiritual complacency that seem to permeate a culture of materialism. They say that he teaches us how to live a practical and pecuniary life, but not an exalted existence. Others see the same reflection and admire the basic middle-class values and democratic sentiments that now seem under assault from elitists, radicals, reactionaries, and other bashers of the bourgeoisie. They regard Franklin as an exemplar of the personal character and civic virtue that are too often missing in modern America.

Much of the admiration is warranted, and so too are some of the qualms. But the lessons from Franklin's life are more complex than those usually drawn by either his fans or his foes. Both sides too often confuse him with the striving pilgrim he portrayed in his autobiography. They mistake his genial moral maxims for the fundamental faiths that motivated his actions.

His morality was built on a sincere belief in leading a virtuous life, serving the country he loved, and hoping to achieve salvation through good works. That led him to make the link between private virtue and civic virtue, and to suspect, based on the meager evidence he could muster about God's will, that these earthly virtues were linked to heavenly ones as well. As he put it in the motto for the library he founded, "To pour forth benefits for the common good is divine." In comparison to contemporaries such as Jonathan Edwards, who believed that men were sinners in the hands of an angry God and that salvation could come through grace alone, this outlook might seem somewhat complacent. In some ways it was, but it was also genuine.

Whatever view one takes, it is useful to engage anew with Franklin, for in doing so we are grappling with a fundamental issue: How does one live a life that is useful, virtuous, worthy, moral, and spiritually meaningful? For that matter, which of these attributes is most important? These are questions just as vital for a self-satisfied age as they were for a revolutionary one.

Copyright © 2003 by Walter Isaacson

From Publishers Weekly

Most people's mental image of Ben Franklin is that of an aged man with wire-rim glasses and a comb-over, flying a kite in a thunder storm, or of the spirited face that stares back from a one-hundred-dollar bill. Isaacson's (Kissinger) biography does much to remind us of Franklin's amazing depth and breadth. At once a scientist, craftsman, writer, publisher, comic, sage, ladies' man, statesman, diplomat and inventor, Franklin not only wore many hats, but in many cases, did not have an equal. The most intriguing thing he invented, and continued to reinvent, according to Isaacson, was himself. Three-time Tony winner Gaines has an obvious interest and affinity for the material. His delivery of Isaacson's factual yet fascinating biography is informative and friendly with an instructional yet casual tone, like that of a gregarious narrator of an educational film. All things considered, Gaines is a good match for the material. He has the authority to deliver historical facts and the enthusiasm to keep listeners interested.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Amazon.com: 4.4 étoiles sur 5  467 commentaires
487 internautes sur 507 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Discover Franklin and Discover America! 8 novembre 2003
Par Mark H. Pierce - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Relié
Ben Franklin An American Life by Walter Isaacson is a book that should be required reading for all American high school students. I wish I had read this book thirty years ago for this book has transformed my cartoonish, single-dimensioned view of Benjamin Franklin into the multi-dimensional, sometimes controversial, and at all times entertaining historical figure he actually was. And while we view Mr. Franklin through the eyes of Author Walter Isaacson, his opinions are mostly invisible throughout almost 600 pages of text, allowing the reader to draw his own conclusions.
We know Ben Franklin today mostly as one of the founding fathers. But his presence in our lives comes mostly to us through companies that either bear his name or use his likeness in advertising. Generally we think of Franklin as a wise man whose Poor Richards Almanack and thirteen virtues remind us to work hard to improve ourselves. His character is affiliated with savings, with insurance, with investments and a whole host of products, which we buy because we should. Because it would be the right thing to do, if not the most desired thing to do. After reading Isaacson's book, I believe Franklin would get a chuckle out of what we have turned him into.
I don't mean that Isaacson portrays Franklin as a fool. He certainly was not that. Isaacson allows us to see Franklin as so much more than his own Autobiography would have us know of him. Mr. Franklin was a great man, great in science, printing, writing, diplomacy, and democracy. Indeed he was the first great promoter of the middle class in America. He believed in the ability of man to make himself better. Certainly he was a self-made man.
But he was also great in the way he lived his life. He loved to travel. As postmaster, he saw more of America probably than any American of his era. His wanderlust did not stop on this side of the Atlantic. He also visited most of Europe. For that matter he lived most of the second half of his life in Europe.
Perhaps what I enjoyed so much about Isaacson's book was learning what Franklin was not. For example, he was not American, as we think of him, until very close to the actual Revolution. For most of his life, Franklin saw himself as a loyal citizen of the throne of England and worked mightily to avoid the very Independence Day in which Americans remember him so highly. He viewed the problems with England as a problem first with the Proprietors, then with the Legislature, and only finally with the king himself. If it had been possible to maintain America as an expanded part of England, with equal rights and responsibilities, Franklin would have happily supported such a plan.
Also while Franklin was great in many endeavors, he was not a particularly good family man. He married his wife more out of expedience and necessity than out of romantic inclination. He needed a mother for his newborn son, William, and Deborah (not William's mother) was a willing candidate. Franklin lived fifteen of the final 18 years away from Deborah: he lived in Europe and she lived in Philadelphia. While he was always fond of Deborah, he was also fond of other women as well. Isaacson does not paint Franklin so much as an adulterer, though he may have been, but rather as more of a flirt.
Franklin did not have many close relationships either. He was estranged from his son, when William remained loyal to the crown. The fact that William remained loyal was not such a shock when one considers that he was raised in England by Franklin when Franklin considered himself first and foremost a British citizen. While Franklin knew more great men of his generation than anyone, he was not particularly close to any of them. He was closer to the women in his life. This closeness was more of companionship and conversation than anything more lurid.
My intention here is to write a book review, not another biography. But I have to admit that one of the great things that has happened in my life as a result of Isaacson's biography of Franklin's life is that I am more keenly desirous of knowing about the minds and the lives of the founding fathers of our great country. Benjamin Franklin An American Life helps me to understand who we are as Americans, as well as who we aren't. Understanding more of what happened 250 years ago helps me to understand more about today.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Isaacson's biography of Franklin. It is a long read. But near the end I was saddened to have to finally finish it. When I read the chapter of Franklin's death I was saddened as if I had lost someone close to me. I was pleased to turn the page and discovered that Isaacson wrote another entire chapter about Franklin after his death. Many writers and thinkers have commented on Franklin's life throughout American history. Franklin has gone through many recreations throughout the past two centuries and reading what has been written at various times also tells us something of those times and the changes in our country.
I give Benjamin Franklin An American Life by Walter Isaacson my highest recommendation of five stars out of five stars. Read it. Enjoy it. Benefit from it. This book of Franklin's yesterdays can change your tomorrows.
162 internautes sur 180 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
3.0 étoiles sur 5 3 1/2* Informative, but Narrative Lacks Appeal 7 novembre 2003
Par M. Allen Greenbaum - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Relié
This is a factual, but sometimes unimaginative biography of the famously multi-talented Benjamin Franklin: Statesman, philosopher (indeed, perhaps the founder of American "pragmatism), politician, writer, scientist, diplomat, community organizer, publisher, and self-help pioneer. (Isaakson writes that Franklin was motivated by the belief that "to put forth benefits for the common good is divine"). Franklin played an important role in treaties with England and France, and was an initially reluctant but thereafter adamant proponent of independence from England. His Albany Plan (1754) and Articles of Confederation (1775) were early and eventually influential efforts to balance federal sovereignty and union with states' interests.

The fault of the book, then, is its subject, but how Isaacson writes about him. Its chief fault is the lack of narrative flair: With the notable exception of the first and last chapters, we have a chronological account broken into small sections. Here's one particularly mundane succession: "Constitutional Ideas" (a mere 2 pages)," "Meeting Lord Howe Again (5 pages)," "To France, with Temple and Benny (4 pages)." A more satisfying approach would have traced Franklin's domestic political thought in one larger chapter, but this would violate Isaakson's chronological imperative. At times the book's equally weighted, well-ordered facts yield a pace that is both plodding and boring. The book is best when it manages to integrate larger themes with the strictly biographical details.

Comparing this biography with David McCullough's popular "John Adams," shows that McCullough's book is more fully realized and more "modern," as he interprets themes and implications within broader contexts. Isaacson, at his worst, reads more like a chronicler as he emphasizes neatly compartmentalized facts that tend to obscure larger themes. McCullough simply writes with greater narrative flair: His book contains both precision and drama, and, contrary to this book, it's never a struggle to get through. Although Franklin's pragmatism perhaps limits how analytic Isaakson can be, there is, generally speaking, not enough about the larger context of American intellectual and cultural history (with the exceptions noted above). For example, there is only superficial discussion of whether Franklin's dream of a great middle class has been realized. Moreover, while some critics claim that McCullough is too admiring of Adams, Isaakson somewhat glosses over Franklin's negative personal qualities. Franklin was a great political compromiser, but he appears somewhat rigid in other matters.

Only in the last chapter does Isaacson fully delve into larger themes. He accomplishes this in 17 excellent pages showing American intellectual reaction to him from the time of his contemporaries through the present. He describes the variations in criticism, such as the great esteem for Franklin among rationalists (during the Age of Enlightenment) and American pragmatists, but also describes the Romantics' disdain of bourgeois practicality, and the critiques written by early 20th century intellectuals (e.g., Max Weber wrote "All Franklin's moral attitudes are colored with utilitarianism."). In October 2000, however, critic David Brooks wrote that our "founding Yuppie" would be comfortable in today's middle class, sharing their "optimistic, genial, and kind" values and their secular and religious-based activism. At the conclusion of the book, Isaacson briefly weighs the evidence, and, not surprisingly, praises Franklin's values and his deeply felt "faith in the wisdom of the common citizen." Had the rest of the biography been written with more of the insight and depth shown in this chapter, the book would have been much better.
239 internautes sur 268 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 A Serious and Fully Enjoyable Read 10 décembre 2003
Par Newt Gingrich - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Relié
If you are looking for a holiday gift that is both serious and enjoyable while capturing much of the spirit of America's founding, you need go no further than "Benjamin Franklin: An American Life."

Isaacson understands something about the American Revolution and the founding fathers that many students of the era never quite get. Each founding father plays an essential role in our becoming an independent republic. Washington is the titan of moral authority on whose integrity our nation rests. Jefferson is the brilliant writer and theorist who helped create modern politics. Madison's systematic hard work created the system of legislative power and constitutional authority that protects our freedoms. Hamilton's understanding of economics and social forces established the capitalist structure, which has made this the wealthiest society in history.
Yet in the deepest sense, these great men were pre-American. They belonged to an earlier, different era where most were landed gentry. Even Hamilton longed for the stability of monarchy.

Only Franklin personified the striving, ambitious, rising system of individual achievement, hard work, thrift and optimism found at the heart of the American spirit. Only Franklin worked his way up in the worlds of business and organized political power in both colonial and national periods. Only Franklin was a world-renowned scientist, founder of corporations, inventor of devices and creator of the American mythos of the common man.

Gordon Wood's "The Radicalism of the American Revolution" caught intellectually this sudden shift from the stable, serious gentry who dominated the founding to the wild, energetic, boisterous Jacksonians who came to define the American ethos.

Franklin is the precursor to the Jacksonians. He personified, literally lived, the American dream and then captured it in an amazingly self aware, fun to read autobiography, which may be the first great book of the American civilization.

Isaacson has captured and portrayed Franklin in all his glory and complexity. This is a book worth giving any of your friends who would better understand America or any foreigner who wonders at our energy, our resilience, our confidence and our success.
24 internautes sur 24 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
3.0 étoiles sur 5 A rewrite of the Brands biography 14 août 2003
Par The Honest Conn Man - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Relié|Achat vérifié
The H.W. Brands biography, "The First American: The Live and Times of Benjamin Franklin" came first, covers all that this biography covers, and -- most important of all -- is far better written. It commences in epic fashion with Franklin being in the "cockpit" to be harangued and humiliated by an English version of a McCarthy hearing. The incident we were told helped lead up to Franklin's abandoment of his long-held belief that the colonies should NOT separate. Then, our appetites whetted (i.e., Why this attack? What was its nature?), the biography begins.
If Brands is the superior writer and was first, why then all the excitement about the Isaacson biography? Well, Isaacson has Time Warner behind him and he did do a good job of recasting the H.W. Brands biography in his own words. And Franklin's astounding list of accomplishments certainly makes for interesting reading even in the hands of a lesser-skilled writer. The content itself makes up for the Cliff Notes approach to writing.
I first read the H.W. Brands biography. Then, I ordered this one for some new insights or quotes or examples. The fact is that Brands said it all and said it all better. Isaacson may have a greater appeal to those who like a bulleted list approach and frequent summaries to help them through a thick book. But, those who enjoy good prose, a biographer with a good if non-intrusive sense of humor, and seeing the victory of merit over a publicity machine, are best advised to get their hands on Brands's even more enjoyable biography.
I take Isaacson at his word that he has read a host of books other than the Brands book that is conspicuously absent from his bibliography. But, all he needed to read for his preparation the Brands biography of Franklin. (The sole examples that I can find of some original material are some quotes he made from Van Doren's biography of Franklin. Those, at least, didn't appear in the Brands book. So, I stand corrected by this exception. There is a little value added by the Isaacson version -- very little, but something.)
Good news: Franklin's inventiveness, dirty trick campaigns, wisdom, leadership, and flirtations are sure hits no matter which biography you pick up. But, if you want to see a truly five-star performance, do check out the Brands biography. The difference between the two is the difference between a work of literature and the Cliff notes, between the art of the biographer and the sterility of the summarizer.
32 internautes sur 34 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 Breezy Franklin Biography Sure to Fly Kites 3 septembre 2003
Par Gregory Maier - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Relié
Walter Isaacson's new biography of that "love him or leave him" American icon, Benjamin Franklin, is nowhere near as comprehensive or as original as the recent biographies by H.W. Brands and Morgan. Nonetheless, Isaacson's contribution is extremely readable and doesn't stray too deeply into the many rivers that fed Franklin's life. It is, in no small part, the breeziness of Isaacson's prose and his colloquial use of language in the narrative that will surely make this a popular biography.
From the outset, it's clear that Isaacson is a Franklin Fan, though he does a credible job of presenting a balanced history and known facts, from letter excerpts to reproductions of paintings and diagrams. Isaacson's partiality toward Franklin seems to interfere in only a few places -he's almost too ready to excuse or not delve into some of Franklin's more minor (albeit speculative) faults, or explore more mercenary motivations for some things Franklin did. Nonetheless, this biography of Benjamin Franklin is the one I would recommend to the uninitiated and particularly to younger and adolescent readers. Isaacson provides a nice buffet for the casual reader and new discoverer of Benjamin Franklin, if a little heavy on the politics at times.
This book very nicely compliments the towering biography "The First American" by H.W. Brands, a magnificent book that requires somewhat more digestion, but Isaacson shouldn't be dismissed as a lightweight: He should be lauded as a man who has again tried to bring Franklin the man down from the mountain and give us the man rather than the myth. By and large, he succeeds very well indeed. Definitely worth the read, and a great book for "anytime" reading.
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