Big Ben

Stephen Fender

  • Franklin of Philadelphia by Esmond Wright
    Harvard, 404 pp, £21.25, May 1986, ISBN 0 674 31809 9

Professor Wright’s third book on Benjamin Franklin is advertised as the ‘first comprehensive biography’ of the American printer, scientist and statesman ‘in fifty years’. What makes it possible is not only the life’s work of a British scholar but also, says the blurb, ‘Yale’s massive edition-in-progress of Franklin’s papers ... and the many specialised studies inspired by the correspondence’. Yet in one sense this claim is misleading. Although we do, of course, learn more about Franklin as the papers emerge, in another sense we are for ever rediscovering and re-inventing him according to our predilections. Franklin is a phenomenon very like what T.S. Eliot called a classic – entailing, to use Frank Kermode’s words in his book of that name, ‘the paradox that there is an identity but that it changes.’

Thus an American woman academic reviewing this book has drawn her readers’ attention to his marrying in order to avoid venereal disease, then abandoning his wife, while he was abroad on diplomatic business, to fifteen years of loneliness. D.H. Lawrence hated his rationality about sex, catching him out on one of his maxims: ‘Rarely use venery but for health or offspring.’ Don’t use it at all, said Lawrence. Early British commentators on America as a new republic could not sidestep Franklin’s manifest genius as a scientist and politician, but managed slyly to insinuate his case into the old trope of the degeneration of transplants. ‘Their Franklins and Washingtons, and all the other sages and heroes of [the American] revolution,’ said Sydney Smith in his ‘Who reads an American book?’ piece in the Edinburgh Review (1820), ‘were born and bred subjects of the King of England.’ The Tory Quarterly for January 1814, lamenting the victory in America of ‘democracy and Franklin’, had to admit that ‘Franklin, in grinding his electrical machine, and flying his kite, did certainly elicit some useful discoveries in a branch of science that had not much engaged the philosophers of Europe. But the foundation of Franklin’s knowledge was laid not in America, but in London.’ Even before this time the American Revolution had become associated in the minds of right-thinking people with certain events in France that Franklin had neither foreseen nor desired, so that journalists on the right, even in America, turned against his memory, as they had against that of Tom Paine. Joseph Dennie’s conservative Port Folio for 14 March 1801 called Franklin ‘one of our first Jacobins, the first to lay his head in the lap of French harlotry; and prostrate the Christianity and honour of his country to the deism and democracies of Paris’. Even his science was second-rate: ‘ “Our Benjamin” was no more distinguished for the originality of his conceptions, than for the purity of his life, or the soundness of his religious doctrine.’ Franklin, like that other classic, Paradise Lost, has not always had a good press.

He does better at the hands of Esmond Wright, not only because Wright is a scholar who writes with an enticing narrative sweep, but also because Franklin’s diverse achievements seem to suit an author who has followed a number of callings. Wright’s Franklin emerges as the instigator of a dozen projects both great and small, from street lighting in Philadelphia to the treaty of alliance with France that helped the American colonies win independence from Britain. Wright’s Franklin is like Wright’s narrative: tolerant of contradictions and complexity, yet willing to simplify to get the job done.

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