The year was 1936, when the author of Benjamin Franklin was fifty- one.* The place, the American History Room of the New York Public Library. Then in my middle twenties, I was at work at one of the tables on what was to be my first published book when there appeared in the movement of persons up and down the central aisle a remarkable figure. He was tall--over six feet--athletic in build, and carried such an air of distinction that I stared. I watched him approach the central desk, say a few words to a most respectful librarian, turn, and walk out of the room.
To my amazement--I had never done anything like this before!--I found myself on my feet. I went up to the desk and asked, who was that resplendent figure? The answer was Van Doren, Carl Van Doren.
Carl, as I came to call him, had as much charisma as any man I have ever seen. Charisma can be a dangerous thing. At the age of thirty-one, Van Doren had become headmaster of a famous girls' school: the Brearley in New York City. How the girls must have worshiped him! He could be, as I was to discover, very overbearing in conversation, but surely his Benjamin Franklin is one of the most modest of major biographies.
His daughter, Barbara Klaw, tells me that her father, who worked actively on this book for five years, had been preparing it in his mind for some twenty more. So much so that his family teased him for acting like Benjamin Franklin. A sense of identification on the part of the author is by no means necessarily an advantage to a biography. Only too often the author kidnaps his subject, making the dead man wear his own face. Van Doren went the opposite way, learning to see and feel like his protagonist.
This transformation did not, despite family teasing, extend beyond Van Doren's relationship with Franklin, as is made eminently clear by a reading of the author's other works. In general, he presents another____________________