Benjamin Franklin; Detailing the Early Years of Benjamin Franklin

Article excerpt


Now we embark on a prolonged celebration of the 300th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Franklin. In mid-December the official Tercentenary Commission's traveling interactive museum show opens in Philadelphia and then moves on for an international tour that will last through 2008. A cavalry charge of biographies (mine included) floods the bookstores and one presumes public television will drown us in Ben - 24-seven.

Yet, the most important event in this overdue examination of the man who made our American Revolution possible is that the first two volumes of a projected seven-volume biography, "The Life of Benjamin Franklin," have been released by the University of Pennsylvania Press and a third volume is slated to go to the editors in January. If you have enjoyed the popular Founding Father and Mother biographies of David McCullough, Joseph Ellis, Edward Morgan and others, this is where you can start feeding your interest in earnest.

The series author is J. A. Leo Lemay, a University of Delaware professor and the doyen of Franklin scholars. It is not too much to say that this literary journey through the bewildering hall of mirrors of Franklin's personality will solidify his sometimes underrated reputation as the first among equals among our national legends. As a series, Mr. Lemay's final output will do for the popular interest in our revolution and early founding what Douglas Southall Freeman's magisterial "Lee's Lieutenants" did for our fixation on the Civil War.

There is a difference between the two series and it is to Mr. Lemay's, and your, advantage. Freeman's multi-volume history, first published in 1942, told the stories of the main generals of the Confederacy by laying out elegantly written after-action reports of the important battles of that struggle. Even to sustain one's way through the subsequently shortened three-volume version published in the 1990s, you have to be a real groupie of the Lost Cause.

A more apt comparison might be to the previous gold standard of Franklin biographies, Carl Van Doren's 1938 biography which won the Pulitzer Prize and remained until now the first book a student of Franklin was advised to read. The difference is hardly discreditable to Van Doren whose research predated by 20 years the start of a systematic effort to collect and study the huge mass of documents Franklin generated during his life.

Yet as good as he was, Van Doren's nearly 800-page doorstopper is often thrown off stride by the sheer breadth of Franklin's personality, of his activities, of the contradictions in what the author called "this harmonious human multitude" of a man.

Just to get his arms around Franklin he would have to interrupt the flow of chapters to drag the reader back to some important insight or event that could not be included in previous pages. And that was just to deal with Franklin himself.

This is a good place to address the question that any reader of this review must be asking about now. Why on earth would anyone commit to buying (let alone reading) seven volumes at 40 bucks a pop about anyone?

As one of my early editors used to ask me, "The story of the Creation takes only 800 words, does your story deserve more?" The answer, happily, is yes. Mr. Lemay, who writes every bit as well as Freeman and better than Van Doren, tells more than the story of an important historical figure. In a seamless narrative Franklin is portrayed against the background of the life and times of other American colonials.

For those who view America's move toward nationhood as inevitability, Mr. Lemay has an important story to tell. With authority he charts how rapidly these at first exclusively English colonies underwent changes that transformed them into a new being and how violent and problematic that change was. Mirroring that upheaval, Franklin evolved too with the same bewildering rapidity and visible conflicts. …