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3 1/2* Informative, but Narrative Lacks Appeal
on November 7, 2003
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.