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There have been no major biographies of Benjamin Franklin since Carl Van Doren's in 1938, and the adaptive genius who died in 1790 at the age of 84, reached only 1757 in writing his own life story. During a long and remarkably productive career, however, he authored many works (including Poor Richard's Almanack), published pamphlets as well as newspapers, and had 400-odd correspondents. Wright, a professor of American history at London University and director of its United States Studies Institute, has taken profitable advantage of Yale's in. progress work on Franklin's papers to offer an engaging, semi-revisionist portrait of perhaps the most delightfully human of the Founding Fathers. Born poor in Cotton Mather's Boston, Franklin became a quintessential American whose accomplishments could put a Renaissance man to shame. Among other things, he was a printer, publisher, prolific essayist, businessman (whose success allowed him to ""retire"" in his 40), scientist, inventor, politician, and diplomat. A moralist as well as sage, the pragmatic Franklin was equally at his ease in Quaker Philadelphia, royal London, and elegant Paris. A rational, somewhat reluctant revolutionary (who had much to lose from a break with the mother country), he nonetheless played a leading role not only in winning the colonies' independence but also in securing the new nation's expansionist future in a wondrous Constitution. Though widely esteemed for his urbanity and down-to-earth wit, Franklin was not universally admired in his own day. Indeed, many contemporaries censured him for opportunism, cynicism, occasional coarseness, and related character flaws. To illustrate, William Cobbett (a Federalist pamphleteer) dismissed Franklin as ""a crafty and lecherous old hypocrite,"" while John Adams deprecated his political abilities. But many others, including Beaumarchais, Carlyle (who called him ""Father of all the Yankees""), and a wealth of American patriots greatly valued Franklin. Without gainsaying Franklin's quirky personality or capacity for devious (even unscrupulous) actions, Wright honors him on many counts, in particular, contributions to his country and his cause. With evident approval, he cites Balzac's summation of Franklin as the inventor of the lightning rod, the hoax, and the republic. The author does not shy from interpretive commentary, but Franklin's splendid prose (much of which has been drawn from newly available archival material) carries a full measure of the narrative weight. Wright's altogether engaging and largely persuasive account of Franklin's long life and triumphant times is that rarity--substantive scholarship, accessible and without pedantry. The completed text will include 20-odd illustrations.

Pub Date: April 6th, 1986
ISBN: 0674318102
Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press