Biography, Book Review

Book Review: Benjamin Franklin

I like biographies.  I gravitate towards three types of reading material:  mystery novels (including horror, suspense and thrillers), science fiction and fantasy, and biographies (including autobiographies and memoirs.)  I love true stories and especially love biographies told like stories.

If you love the same, do not read this book.

I read reviews of this book and saw others give it high ratings, so my husband bought a copy and we both read (or in my case, tried to read) it.  Now, I know what you’re thinking. Given my taste in literature — and I use that term loosely — perhaps the scholarly style was off putting. Not so. Actually, Edmund S. Morgan’s style is eminently accessible, smooth and easily read.

The problem I had with this book was that it lacked a sense of story, of drama.  Ben Franklin is one of the most fascinating characters in all of history.  How could this man be a successful businessman, scientist, inventor, writer, statesman and scholar? It’s mind boggling to think of all the roles that Franklin held in his lifetime, and held well.  He was accomplished in nearly everything he turned his attention to.

And therein, I think, lies the problem.  Morgan’s scholarship may be impeccable (I don’t know and am in no position to judge) but Franklin came across to me as too good. True, in the 1760s he makes a critical blunder in his negotiations with the Colonial leaders in England; he supports slavery early in his life; he shows a surprising streak of prejudice, thinking German immigrants inferior to the English. Okay, so he had the prejudice of his times, including acceptance of slavery, and made one political error in his career.

What about his infamous womanizing ways? His eldest son, Will, is clearly illegitimate, and Will’s mother’s history, and Franklin’s relationship with her, are lost to the winds of time. But his relationship with the daughter of his British landlord, Polly, has all the heat of a tepid bath; I thought for some reason he was a great romancer?

Perhaps I too have fallen victim to the Hollywood stereotypes that so many of our American heroes have been tarnished with. Washington is always a stuffy general with bad teeth; Lincoln, a gangling melancholic with a hysterical wife; Jefferson, curious, courtly and scientific.  But like anyone alive today, these facts (if they are truly facts) tell only part of the story. You could look at my life and say, “She’s a crazy cat lady, childless, isolating herself on a farm” or you could look at my life and say, “She loves animals so much she’s rescued six cats and one dog, and is living her dream on her organic farm away from the city.” Both statements include facts about my life, but one has a slant, albeit an incorrect one, that lends spice; the other slants the opposite direction, with a different flavor.  The facts are there, the slant is different, and each story would be different.

Franklin’s list of accomplishments alone could fill a book, but I felt bored with this recitation of his accomplishments. I could barely read a few pages before yearning for something more exciting. The book read like a glass of warm milk.

I have read some wonderful biographies of Thomas Jefferson, Voltaire, Helen Keller, and many others.  Each related the facts of their lives yet felt dramatic and exciting. I do not put this book in that category. As a biography, I believe it is factual and may appeal to the scholarly.  But for those who, like me, yearn for an engaging read to take me out of my day to day life, this book wasn’t for me.

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