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Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson; Simon & Schuster; 566 pages

In his day, Benjamin Franklin was America’s funniest writer, foremost scientist, cleverest inventor, and greatest diplomat. Zelig-like, he popped up at virtually every critical juncture in the creation of the Republic: helping craft the Declaration of Independence, winning French support during the American Revolution, negotiating the Treaty of Paris, and conciliating rival factions at the Constitutional Convention. An entrancing subject for biographers, Franklin’s life has been recounted many times. The latest retelling comes from Walter Isaacson, the former managing editor of Time magazine and newly appointed head of the Aspen Institute, a private think tank. Though not a professional historian, Isaacson comes to his project with substantial intellectual credentials. A former Rhodes scholar, he’s written two previous books, one of them a ground-breaking biography of Henry Kissinger. Thirteen years in the making, Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin: An American Life is comprehensive and highly readable. It adds little to the store of knowledge on Franklin, however, and in places reads almost like a hobbyist’s account. Though the author is full of enthusiasm and appreciation, one feels that he too was taken in by Franklin’s famously charming persona. Although Isaacson was briefly the chief executive at CNN, he considers himself a man of words. It’s a self-definition he shares with his subject, who was a prolific writer. The fifteenth of 17 children fathered by an immigrant candle maker, Franklin began his career as an apprentice in his brother’s Boston print shop. As recounted in his famous Autobiography, Franklin fled to Philadelphia at age 17 with only the change in his pocket. From this unlikely start he built a publishing business that turned him into one of the wealthiest men in colonial America. Telling Franklin’s story is a daunting task; his papers are vast and his interests wide-ranging. Carl van Doren’s 1938 biography arguably remains the most definitive. More recent takes have been limited to specific aspects of Franklin’s life. Edmund Morgan’s extraordinary character study (2002) focuses on Franklin’s later years. Willard Sterne Randall’s A Little Revenge (1984) scrutinizes Franklin’s complex and tragic relationship with his only son. Have A Beer With Ben Isaacson’s bio, however, sets out to cover everything: Franklin’s long life, diverse pursuits, and confoundingly elusive character. The ambitious scope turns out be both a strength and a weakness. On the plus side, Franklin’s life is covered in one accessible volume that shows how his seemingly divergent interests formed a coherent whole. On the con side, Isaacson is simply spread too thin, often serving up admiration rather than insight. The author quite rightly notes that Franklin is the sole founding father who has “a twinkle in his eye,” the one most Americans would like to “have a beer with.” As Isaacson writes, “The roots of much of what distinguishes the nation can be found in Franklin,” including his religious tolerance, self-invented persona, technological ingenuity, foreign policy idealism, business acumen, and egalitarian temperament. Isaacson keeps the narrative smooth and fast, gliding over the surface of complex matters that would mire down an academic history. At times, however, he tries too hard to be casual and slips into anachronism. Isaacson describes Franklin as “the consummate networker” who built a “vertically integrated media empire” but needed to resolve “issues” with his adult son. Lapses such as these make Isaacson’s book occasionally read like a fan’s account. This is especially evident in his reliance on secondary sources. To his credit, Isaacson cites other Franklin biographers, but they seem to have most of the thought-provoking lines. One begins to long for some forcefully stated, original analysis from Isaacson himself. His book is at its best and most engrossing when recounting Franklin’s years as envoy to France. This is perhaps no surprise, given that Isaacson first became interested in Franklin while researching Kissinger. One wishes that the man who gave us such a penetrating account of twentieth-century America’s shrewdest diplomat had focused his attention on the eighteenth century’s wiliest one.


Aman is a staff editor at Corporate Counsel. E-mail: [email protected].

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