Friday, January 8, 2010

The First American by H.W. Brands

"It is owing to their ignorance of the nature of pleasure and pain that the ancient heathens believed the idle fable of their Elysium, that state of uninterrupted ease and happiness. The thing is entirely possible in nature! Are not the pleasures of the spring made such by the disagreeableness of the winter? Is not the pleasure of fair weather owing to the unpleasantness of foul? Certainly. Were it then always spring, were the fields always green and flourishing, and the weather constantly serene and fair, the pleasure would pall and die upon our hands; it would cease to be pleasure to us, when it is not ushered in by uneasiness." - Benjamin Franklin

Wow. It's been a long time since I've read something this intensely. I devoured this book. I feel kind of bad because a friend lent it to me (I believe without having read it) in practically brand new condition and it now looks like it's been read about 20 times. Really though I guess wear-and-tear is the inexorable indicator of an excellent, intelligently written paperback.

I really don't need to say anything about the narrative of Franklin's life. We all know who Benjamin Franklin was and what he did, for the most part. Brands simply elaborates on the anecdotes you've heard about Poor Richard catching electricity in a jar and proclaiming that the only certainties of life are "death and taxes." And he does it quite well. As much as I love non-fiction, I find it rarely has the "can't put this down" factor of good fiction. That was not the case with The First American. Even though this biography is essentially just a well-written history textbook, I couldn't stop reading it once I had started (Same way I felt about A People's History of the United States, actually).

Granted, Brands is very, very pro-Franklin. This isn't a tell-all biography that promises you tales of "the Benjamin Franklin you DIDN'T learn about in high school." It elides modern accusations of Franklin's epicurean lifestyle and focuses more on the works of the man than the man himself. Sitting here and reflecting back on the book, it's hard to give a general description of the type of man that Franklin was. I don't view this as a failure of the biographer to capture the essence of his subject, but rather it stems from the fact that Franklin was a man molded by his constantly changing surroundings (Boston, Philadelphia, London, Paris, and everywhere in between). His thoughts on religion wander from atheist to deist to Presbyterian. As a slave owner, his position on human bondage drifts from active participation, to politically pragmatic countenance, and finally onto outspoken criticism of slavery as a pernicious institution that must be abolished. Franklin lived to be 84 years old and he never once stopped thinking analytically. As a result, he never became dogmatic or obdurate in his beliefs, be they political, religious, or philosophical. Brands portrays Franklin in the most effective way possible, by highlighting important periods and events in Franklin's life and explaining how they shaped his thoughts and actions.

Ben Franklin, at least as I've seen him through Brands' lens, was a true humanist. He believed that as a people we are capable of all things great and virtuous. He gave more than a half century of his life to serving his neighbors in one capacity or another. He worked to allow them the freedoms that they needed to achieve their boundless potential. Obviously, the man wasn't perfect. He had his flaws just like the rest of us. But Franklin's personal weaknesses pale in comparison to his impact on the social, scientific, and political arenas of the 18th century. If I got nothing else from this bio, it was that Benjamin Franklin was a great man who led a life truly worthy of remembrance.

If you enjoy American or European history, biographies of those truly great, or just non-fiction of superb quality, check out The First American. You won't regret having read it. Though after learning about a life as full and repercussive as Franklin's, you might be left feeling like you need to get off your ass and go out and do something worth remembering.

1 comment:

Lula O said...

I've been wanting to read a book about Franklin. This sounds like a great one. Thanks for your thoughts on this one.