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A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America Paperback – January 10, 2006

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Editorial Reviews Review

Benjamin Franklin began the "the most taxing assignment of his life" at the age of 70: to secure the aid of the French monarchy in helping the fledgling United States establish their republic. The job required tremendous skill, finesse, and discretion, and as Stacy Schiff makes clear in this brilliant book, Franklin was the ideal American, perhaps the only one, to take on the task, due in large part to his considerable personal prestige. One of the most famous men in the world when he landed in France in December 1776, his arrival caused a sensation--he was celebrated as a man of genius, a successor to Newton and Galileo, and treated as a great dignitary, even though the nation he represented was less than a year old and there were many doubts as to whether it would see its second birthday. Though he had no formal diplomatic training and spoke only rudimentary French, Franklin managed to engineer the Franco-American alliance of 1778 and the peace treaty of 1783, effectively inventing American foreign policy as he went along, in addition to serving as chief diplomat, banker, and director of American naval affairs.

Franklin recognized and accepted the fact that French aid was crucial to American independence, but some Founding Fathers resented him for making America dependent on a foreign power and severely attacked him for securing the very aid that saved the cause. Schiff offers fascinating coverage of this American infighting, along with the complex political intrigue in France, complete with British spies and French double agents, secret negotiations and backroom deals. A Great Improvisation is an entertaining and illuminating portrait of Franklin's seven-year adventure in France that "stands not only as his greatest service to his country but the most revealing of the man." --Shawn Carkonen --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Numerous bestselling volumes have been written recently on the man one biography called "the first American." Pulitzer Prize-winner Schiff (for Véra[Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov]) eloquently adds to our understanding of Benjamin Franklin with a graceful, sly and smart look at his seven-year sojourn in France in his quasi-secret quest to secure American independence by procuring an alliance with the French. Drawing on newly available sources, Schiff brilliantly chronicles the international intrigues and the political backbiting that surrounded Franklin during his mission. "A master of the oblique approach, a dabbler in shades of gray," she writes, "Franklin was a natural diplomat, genial and ruthless." She deftly recreates the glittering and gossipy late 18th-century Paris in which Franklin moved, and she brings to life such enigmatic French leaders as Jacques-Donatien Chaumont, Franklin's closest adviser and chief supplier of American aid, and Charles Vergennes, the French minister of foreign affairs, who helped Franklin write the French-American Alliance of 1778. Franklin also negotiated the peace of 1783 that led not only to the independence of the colonies from Britain but also to a bond between France and America that, Schiff says, lasted until WWII. Schiff's sure-handed historical research and her majestic prose offer glimpses into a little-explored chapter of Franklin's life and American history.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Holt Paperbacks; Reprint edition (January 10, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805080090
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805080094
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 1 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (61 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #61,196 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Stacy Schiff is the author of Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), winner of the Pulitzer Prize; Saint-Exupéry, a Pulitzer Prize finalist; and A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, winner of the George Washington Book Prize and the Ambassador Book Award. Schiff has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. The recipient of an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she lives in New York City.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

81 of 86 people found the following review helpful By David J. Loftus on May 9, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Founding Fathers are hot stuff these days. Benjamin Franklin, with two major bios in the past three years (Morgan and Isaacson) and re-publication of others by H.W. Brands and Gordon Wood, may be the hottest. Into this crowd wades Stacy Schiff, whose elegant and witty biography of Vera Nabokov won a 2000 Pulitzer (and whose previous bio of Saint-Exupéry garnered a nomination). Why step from uncommon byways onto a crowded boulevard?

Happily, Schiff's breezy, cosmopolitan, but never superficial style is excellently suited to the open-minded satirist and scientist, and a tale that reads like a cruel farce. _A Great Improvisation_ focuses on just eight years of Franklin's 84-year life, starting in 1776 when he was sent to Paris by the Continental Congress at the age of 70 to get France into the war. Fortunately, France regarded Franklin as a celebrity genius, which was more than many of his colleagues back home in Congress thought of him.

Franklin was "honest, but not too honest, which qualifies in France as a failure of imagination." He could "indulge in the ingenious and wholly specious argument, a staple of French conversation." His defense of French admiral d'Estaing was "a shining tribute to benevolent ignorance. (And one that happened accidentally to be accurate.)" Surrounded by spies, he had papers and money stolen. The other Americans in Paris squabbled endlessly with one another, accusing the French of deceit and intrigue even more than the British. Franklin's co-commissioner, Arthur Lee, "was ideally suited for the mission in every way save for his personality, which was rancid."

Poor trans-Atlantic communications enabled the Paris delegation's enemies to poison Congress against them, especially Franklin, who risked censure several times.
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30 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Geoffrey Woollard on January 28, 2007
Format: Paperback
In my British ignorance, I had led myself to believe that there was only one version of the life of Benjamin Franklin - that of the unique and unparalleled polymath and all-American hero, born in the British Empire but buried at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the great republic that he helped to create.

But Stacy Schiff's extremely readable and obviously well-researched book that covers the period of Dr. Franklin's life when he was an envoy of the second Continental Congress to the Court of King Louis XVI of France also covers the controversy that surrounded this amateur ambassador, stirred most particularly by the brothers Arthur Lee and William Lee of Virginia and John Adams of Massachusetts, later to be the second President of The United States. The former seem to have been motivated by Southern superciliousness and arrogance, 'qualities' battered out of their kind in the later 'War for Southern Independence' by the descendants of the likes of the latter, possessors of their own special sort of sanctimonious superiority complexes.

I can forgive the Lee family for almost anything, for one of my all-time American heroes is General Robert Edward Lee, but it is clear that his older relatives, Arthur and William, disgraced themselves, Virginia and their infant nation by their constant sniping at the one man who was winning over French opinion and, more importantly, attracting French cash and much, much more, for General Washington's army. As to Adams, his distaste for the venerable Dr. Franklin is sufficiently well-documented not to be doubted. The motive for this distaste can reasonably be attributed in part to his narrow and God-fearing New England background, especially when contrasted with Franklin's leading and learned role in enlightening America.
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34 of 38 people found the following review helpful By Marc E. Nicholson on June 7, 2006
Format: Hardcover
I wanted to like this book, which delves more deeply than

others--and through previously unmined sources--into Franklin's years as Revolutionary America's representative in France. It was there that he established his most significant historic legacy, by securing French support in manpower and money which was both critical to the success of the American Revolution and an unintended catalyst for the subsequent French Revolution.

But I come away from the book rather disappointed, because while the writer has done her homework and obviously knows her source material, all that learning has been imperfectly translated into written form. And the reason appears to be that Ms. Schiff is more a literary stylist (and a good one) than a historian, and she is so intent on producing a witty book with turns of irony and serendipity on almost every page, that it gets in the way of a clear history. The language of the book itself often resembles the convoluted baroque aesthetic characteristic of the France Franklin experienced--meaning it is often a slow and less than transparent read, even if eventually entertaining.

But too entertaining. The effort to offer up humorous anecdotes sometimes takes the author down irrelevant byways and, above all, interferes with a clear and analytical exposition of the history. There is too much of pure daily narrative (occasionally trivial)--this happened, then that, then the other thing--without an overarching analytical framework. When that framework does sporadically appear, in particular as regards French attitudes and motives in supporting the American Revolution, it is not always internally consistent at different points of the book. Maybe French attitudes/motives evolved over time.
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