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Benjamin Franklin: An American Life Paperback – June 1, 2004
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Benjamin Franklin, writes journalist and biographer Walter Isaacson, was that rare Founding Father who would sooner wink at a passer-by than sit still for a formal portrait. What's more, Isaacson relates in this fluent and entertaining biography, the revolutionary leader represents a political tradition that has been all but forgotten today, one that prizes pragmatism over moralism, religious tolerance over fundamentalist rigidity, and social mobility over class privilege. That broadly democratic sensibility allowed Franklin his contradictions, as Isaacson shows. Though a man of lofty principles, Franklin wasn't shy of using sex to sell the newspapers he edited and published; though far from frivolous, he liked his toys and his mortal pleasures; and though he sometimes gave off a simpleton image, he was a shrewd and even crafty politician. Isaacson doesn't shy from enumerating Franklins occasional peccadilloes and shortcomings, in keeping with the iconoclastic nature of our time--none of which, however, stops him from considering Benjamin Franklin "the most accomplished American of his age," and one of the most admirable of any era. And heres one bit of proof: as a young man, Ben Franklin regularly went without food in order to buy books. His example, as always, is a good one--and this is just the book to buy with the proceeds from the grocery budget. --Gregory McNamee --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
Following closely on the heels of Edmund Morgan's justly acclaimed Benjamin Franklin, Isaacson's longer biography easily holds its own. How do the two books differ? Isaacson's is more detailed; it lingers over such matters as the nature of Franklin's complex family circumstances and his relations with others, and it pays closer attention to each of his extraordinary achievements. Morgan's is more subtle and reflective. Each in its different way is superb. Isaacson (now president of the Aspen Institute, he is the former chairman of CNN and a Henry Kissinger biographer) has a keen eye for the genius of a man whose fingerprints lie everywhere in our history. The oldest, most distinctive and multifaceted of the founders, Franklin remains as mysterious as Jefferson. After examining the large body of existing Franklin scholarship as skillfully and critically as any scholar, Isaacson admits that his subject always "winks at us" to keep us at bay-which of course is one reason why he's so fascinating. Unlike, say, David McCullough's John Adams, which seeks to restore Adams to public affection, this book has no overriding agenda except to present the story of Franklin's life. Unfortunately, for all its length, it's a book of connected short segments without artful, easy transitions So whether this fresh and lively work will replace Carl Van Doren's beloved 1938 Benjamin Franklin in readers' esteem remains to be seen.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top customer reviews
“Franklin has a particular resonance in twenty-first-century America. A successful publisher and consummate networker with an inventive curiosity, he would have felt right at home in the information revolution, and his unabashed striving to be part of an upwardly mobile meritocracy made him, in social critic David Brooks’s phrase, ‘our founding Yuppie.’”
Throughout the book, Isaacson shows how Franklin was not only a product of and influencer of the Age of Enlightenment, but an influencer and shaper of America. It isn’t a difficult jump to imagine, with his curiosity, practicality, networking skills, and gregarious personality how well he would fit into the internet age. What could he have done with the ready access to information we have and the social media of today? Could you imagine a Poor Richard on Twitter? I have to agree with Isaacson, he truly would feel right at home in today’s America.
“For Franklin, who embodied the Enlightenment and its spirit of compromise, this was hardly a fault. For him, compromise was not only a practical approach but a moral one. Tolerance, humility, and a respect for others required it.”
On the other hand, I think Franklin would be at the least saddened by what has become of the government played a key role in shaping. Franklin was not only a firm believer in compromise, he was instrumental in the compromise that brought about our Constitution and government. I think he would be shocked at the lack of tolerance we have for differing opinions and our lack of humility. I don’t think he would approve of the zero sum game American politics has become. He would decry not the inability, but the abject refusal of both the Republicans and Democrats to even attempt compromise – something that has seen the fall of Speaker Boehner.
Benjamin Franklin is a very good read; it follows Franklin’s life chronologically and Isaacson indulges in some historiography, looking at how historians and pundits viewed him through the years before closing by looking back on Franklin’s life and his influence on the development of the United States. It seems to be a balanced look at Franklin’s life. Certainly Isaacson points out Franklin’s accomplishments and good points, but it is also clear that he has trouble reconciling his relationship with his wife and children compared to his relationships with his “adopted” families in England and France. I particularly like how he develops Franklin’s personality through the different stages of his life, from apprentice to printer/businessman to politician and diplomat as well as his continuing interests in philosophy and science, pointing out Franklin’s strength in practical matters as opposed to theoretical matters. Isaacson also traces Franklin’s transformation from loyal subject to revolutionary. The book is very readable; Isaacson delves into and explains politics and diplomacy both domestic and foreign without delving too deep into analysis. I truly enjoyed reading this book; it gave me some new insights into Franklin and I even learned a few things in the process. This is a book that should be on the reading list of any interested in American History.
Isaacson is very passionate for his subject and that is something that he cannot keep veiled very well. The beginning of the book starts out slow but once he gets moving then he keeps a strong steady pace. It is refreshing to see a writer with so much enthusiasm for his subject and while some historians frown on that; I don't. I like the way he traces Franklin's life and family history. In fact, his family history really gives us a context for understanding the way Franklin thought and acted. His strong puritanical upbringing did not make him a religious man, but it did tend to create a desire to be socially proactive. In fact, I appreciate the way that Isaacson traced the religious journey of Franklin and I wish that more authors would concentrate on this aspect of the political/ social figures they are writing about. Franklin's religious life is not one that is static but rather one that was constantly evolving and moving towards a more coherent view. His religion like everything else in his life, was strongly pragmatic. In many ways, we find in Dr. Franklin that strong American pragmatism that has come to define the American people in the past and present.
Franklin's home life was a very slippery slope and it was difficult to know what to make of his relationship with family. Franklin had a son born out of wedlock and their relationship was rocky thoughout his life, and particularly at the latter end. He had a grandson by this son that was also born out of wedlock and yet he loved this boy, perhaps even more than his own son. His marriage to Deborah was also very strange. Some historians have concluded or at least suggested that Franklin did not love her. He spent years of his life away from her and his letters do not reveal a tender affection towards her. Yet, Isaacson suggests that there is a way in which Franklin did regard her. Many have painted him as a philanderer whose nefarious dalliances and sexual escapades are among the most outrageous among the founders. Isaacson suggests that while Franklin certainly had emotional affairs that he remained faithful to his wife. To be honest with you, it seems a little difficult to believe. It is hard to imagine that a man who sits in a bathtub with another woman is not physically involved with her. I think he is right that we should assume that Franklin was probably not as wild as he is taken to be, but I am not convinced of his monogamy. This was an area where I felt the authors personal feelings for his subject may have interfered with his better judgment.
The writing style of the author was easy and generally engaging despite the fact that I thought he had a weak beginning. There were a few discrepancies that caught my attention and I will have to read a great deal more about this topic to be certain. Most people know that John Adams and Benjamin Franklin were selected to help Thomas Jefferson in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. Most historians seem to suggest that Adams was the one who really pushed for Jefferson to write it and states his reasons as: 1. Jefferson is a Virginian and a Virginian should be at the head of this business. 2. Jefferson was liked while he thought himself to be obnoxious and not well liked by many in Congress. 3. Jefferson is a far more eloquent writer than the others. Isaacson suggests that it was Franklin who said this not Adams. This seems to be a mistake as Franklin is the one who is thought to have suggested Jefferson change "sacred and inviolable" to "inalienable" because the former smacked of the pulpit. I think that it was in fact Adams who stated the three basic reasons that Jefferson should write the document. Franklin was not obnoxious and seemed to always be generally well thought of and that alone caused me to question Isaacson on this point. There were other small issues that I wondered about through the book. Generally, he seemed to be factually accurate and his writing style was interesting enough to attract a reader who may not be prone to read history books.
I was happy to see that this writer spent a great deal of time salvaging the reputation of Franklin. His reputation has suffered as he is often portrayed as an intelligent man that prone to buffoonery. Certainly, he had a sense of humor and he could be somewhat crude. The funniest piece I read was his fake letter to the royal academy of farts. However, to see Franklin as a mere jester is to miss the force of his convictions, visions, and political prowess. Franklin had the foresight to see that America needed to unite along the lines of the Iroquois Confederacy long before many others. He was a man who believed in internal improvements, pragmatic scientific discovery, and a strong middle class. His vision for this nation has been a strong guidepost for two centuries of American thought. His work as a diplomat in France is a model for modern diplomacy. He was a fox when it came to dealing with other humans and his penchant for compromise is what helped to give us the constitution that we know have.
Overall, it was a good work that serves as a solid starting point for Franklin's life. He honored Franklin and while he was often soft on his shortcomings he did not altogether deny them. His portrayal of Adams seemed a little warped and his dislike of Adams bled through the descriptions. While I know that Adams had a side that made him a hard man to deal with, I did not always feel that he gave hm enough credit. His ending was solid and I love the way that he wrapped up the loose ends by explaining what happened to Franklin's family and close friends. It would have been nice if the book had included images so as to see some of the people that are discussed throughout the book. These are just minor complaints and do not detract from the work in any significant way.I will give it 1 star for readablity, 1 star for solid research, 1 star for bibliography, and 1 star for content. As far as the last star is concerned I would take away 1/2 star for minor discrepancies and a 1/2 star for the slow and laborious start to the book.