E.H. aims at objectivity. She is a historian by training, holds a Yale Ph.D., and is knowledgeable about trends in historiography. I, C.L., trained in literature, see myself basically as a biographer. My fascination is with people. With this man in particular, this Benjamin Franklin, who still perplexes me after more than fifteen years of deciphering and transcribing his correspondence. When I am tempted to conclude that those who call him cool and detached are in the right, I stumble upon a paragraph of his, fairly shaking with fury. When I feel that "mellow" is the right word for him, at least in his later years, I fall upon some incredibly harsh remark to his daughter, or I am reminded of his inexorable break with his son. About to decide that he was hard, after all, I remember his infinite patience and tenderness toward his sister Jane. Neither demigod nor unfeeling egotist, this is the Franklin I have been groping to understand and that we have tried to present: some warts, some laurels, some sins, some virtues.
Every morning on my way to work at Yale's Sterling Library, I walk by his bust standing guard near the entrance. I look at that very English face, eyes serene, skin flabby, thin and determined mouth, ironic smile. And I wonder what it was like to be his wife, ardently desired in the lust of the early years, warmly appreciated during their two decades in business, coolly left to age and die alone when history swept him on. What about Sally, the daughter, so protected and so shackled, yet unaware of being shackled because it was the common lot of girls?
And William, the once-cherished son? When our own boys proclaim that it is difficult to be a professor's child--doctors surely hear the same complaint, and lawyers, and clergymen, and farmers, and the recent immigrants and the old settlers--I think of William and his problems. To be the son of such a genius. Such a charismatic man. And to be illegitimate besides, the perfect target for anyone's hostility, the perfect foil for invidious comparison. This in a society where the only feelings a son was allowed to express were devotion and respect.
Did it make life easier for any of them, the grandchildren and the nephews, to be related to this great and famous man? Were they made