Friday, November 11, 2011

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
By Walter Isaacson

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Product Description

Benjamin Franklin is the founding father who winks at us, the one who seems made of flesh rather than marble. In this authoritative and engrossing full-scale biography, Walter Isaacson shows how the most fascinating of America's founders helped define our national character.

In a sweeping narrative that follows Franklin's life from Boston to Philadelphia to London and Paris and back, Isaacson chronicles the adventures of the spunky runaway apprentice who became, during his 84-year life, America's best writer, inventor, media baron, scientist, diplomat, and business strategist, as well as one of its most practical and ingenious political leaders. He explores the wit behind Poor Richard's Almanac and the wisdom behind the Declaration of Independence, the new nation's alliance with France, the treaty that ended the Revolution, and the compromises that created a near-perfect Constitution.

Above all, Isaacson shows how Franklin's unwavering faith in the wisdom of the common citizen and his instinctive appreciation for the possibilities of democracy helped to forge an American national identity based on the virtues and values of its middle class.

Product Details
  • Amazon Sales Rank: #1184 in Books
  • Published on: 2004-05-04
  • Format: Bargain Price
  • Number of items: 1
  • Binding: Paperback
  • 608 pages
Editorial Reviews Review
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 Franklin's 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 here's 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

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.

From Booklist
Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, and even Adams stare down at you from Mt. Olympus. But Benjamin Franklin has always seemed the most accessible of our Founding Fathers. He looks out benignly from our $100 bill. He dispenses grandfatherly wisdom spiced with humor from Poor Richard's Almanac. Of course, Franklin was a complicated and interesting personality, as this book illustrates. Isaacson, formerly the CEO of CNN and managing editor of Time magazine, is currently president of the Aspen Institute. He has written a chronological biography that pays due tribute to Franklin's genius while revealing his harder edges. Franklin was clearly driven and supremely ambitious. In serving his ambition, he could be manipulative and a shameless self-promoter. His personal and political loyalties often shifted, yet he never forgave the "betrayal" when his illegitimate son remained loyal to Britain. Jay Freeman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews

371 of 387 people found the following review helpful.
5Discover Franklin and Discover America!
By Mark H. Pierce
Ben Franklin An American Life by Walter Isaacson is a book that should be required reading for all American high school students. I wish I had read this book thirty years ago for this book has transformed my cartoonish, single-dimensioned view of Benjamin Franklin into the multi-dimensional, sometimes controversial, and at all times entertaining historical figure he actually was. And while we view Mr. Franklin through the eyes of Author Walter Isaacson, his opinions are mostly invisible throughout almost 600 pages of text, allowing the reader to draw his own conclusions.

We know Ben Franklin today mostly as one of the founding fathers. But his presence in our lives comes mostly to us through companies that either bear his name or use his likeness in advertising. Generally we think of Franklin as a wise man whose Poor Richards Almanack and thirteen virtues remind us to work hard to improve ourselves. His character is affiliated with savings, with insurance, with investments and a whole host of products, which we buy because we should. Because it would be the right thing to do, if not the most desired thing to do. After reading Isaacson's book, I believe Franklin would get a chuckle out of what we have turned him into.

I don't mean that Isaacson portrays Franklin as a fool. He certainly was not that. Isaacson allows us to see Franklin as so much more than his own Autobiography would have us know of him. Mr. Franklin was a great man, great in science, printing, writing, diplomacy, and democracy. Indeed he was the first great promoter of the middle class in America. He believed in the ability of man to make himself better. Certainly he was a self-made man.

But he was also great in the way he lived his life. He loved to travel. As postmaster, he saw more of America probably than any American of his era. His wanderlust did not stop on this side of the Atlantic. He also visited most of Europe. For that matter he lived most of the second half of his life in Europe.

Perhaps what I enjoyed so much about Isaacson's book was learning what Franklin was not. For example, he was not American, as we think of him, until very close to the actual Revolution. For most of his life, Franklin saw himself as a loyal citizen of the throne of England and worked mightily to avoid the very Independence Day in which Americans remember him so highly. He viewed the problems with England as a problem first with the Proprietors, then with the Legislature, and only finally with the king himself. If it had been possible to maintain America as an expanded part of England, with equal rights and responsibilities, Franklin would have happily supported such a plan.

Also while Franklin was great in many endeavors, he was not a particularly good family man. He married his wife more out of expedience and necessity than out of romantic inclination. He needed a mother for his newborn son, William, and Deborah (not William's mother) was a willing candidate. Franklin lived fifteen of the final 18 years away from Deborah: he lived in Europe and she lived in Philadelphia. While he was always fond of Deborah, he was also fond of other women as well. Isaacson does not paint Franklin so much as an adulterer, though he may have been, but rather as more of a flirt.

Franklin did not have many close relationships either. He was estranged from his son, when William remained loyal to the crown. The fact that William remained loyal was not such a shock when one considers that he was raised in England by Franklin when Franklin considered himself first and foremost a British citizen. While Franklin knew more great men of his generation than anyone, he was not particularly close to any of them. He was closer to the women in his life. This closeness was more of companionship and conversation than anything more lurid.

My intention here is to write a book review, not another biography. But I have to admit that one of the great things that has happened in my life as a result of Isaacson's biography of Franklin's life is that I am more keenly desirous of knowing about the minds and the lives of the founding fathers of our great country. Benjamin Franklin An American Life helps me to understand who we are as Americans, as well as who we aren't. Understanding more of what happened 250 years ago helps me to understand more about today.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Isaacson's biography of Franklin. It is a long read. But near the end I was saddened to have to finally finish it. When I read the chapter of Franklin's death I was saddened as if I had lost someone close to me. I was pleased to turn the page and discovered that Isaacson wrote another entire chapter about Franklin after his death. Many writers and thinkers have commented on Franklin's life throughout American history. Franklin has gone through many recreations throughout the past two centuries and reading what has been written at various times also tells us something of those times and the changes in our country.

I give Benjamin Franklin An American Life by Walter Isaacson my highest recommendation of five stars out of five stars. Read it. Enjoy it. Benefit from it. This book of Franklin's yesterdays can change your tomorrows.

193 of 215 people found the following review helpful.
5A Serious and Fully Enjoyable Read
By Newt Gingrich
If you are looking for a holiday gift that is both serious and enjoyable while capturing much of the spirit of America's founding, you need go no further than "Benjamin Franklin: An American Life."

Isaacson understands something about the American Revolution and the founding fathers that many students of the era never quite get. Each founding father plays an essential role in our becoming an independent republic. Washington is the titan of moral authority on whose integrity our nation rests. Jefferson is the brilliant writer and theorist who helped create modern politics. Madison's systematic hard work created the system of legislative power and constitutional authority that protects our freedoms. Hamilton's understanding of economics and social forces established the capitalist structure, which has made this the wealthiest society in history.

Yet in the deepest sense, these great men were pre-American. They belonged to an earlier, different era where most were landed gentry. Even Hamilton longed for the stability of monarchy.

Only Franklin personified the striving, ambitious, rising system of individual achievement, hard work, thrift and optimism found at the heart of the American spirit. Only Franklin worked his way up in the worlds of business and organized political power in both colonial and national periods. Only Franklin was a world-renowned scientist, founder of corporations, inventor of devices and creator of the American mythos of the common man.

Gordon Wood's "The Radicalism of the American Revolution" caught intellectually this sudden shift from the stable, serious gentry who dominated the founding to the wild, energetic, boisterous Jacksonians who came to define the American ethos.

Franklin is the precursor to the Jacksonians. He personified, literally lived, the American dream and then captured it in an amazingly self aware, fun to read autobiography, which may be the first great book of the American civilization.

Isaacson has captured and portrayed Franklin in all his glory and complexity. This is a book worth giving any of your friends who would better understand America or any foreigner who wonders at our energy, our resilience, our confidence and our success.

95 of 108 people found the following review helpful.
33 1/2* Informative, but Narrative Lacks Appeal
By M. Allen Greenbaum
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.


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