Top critical review
A rewrite of the Brands biography
Reviewed in the United States on August 14, 2003
The H.W. Brands biography, "The First American: The Live and Times of Benjamin Franklin" came first, covers all that this biography covers, and -- most important of all -- is far better written. It commences in epic fashion with Franklin being in the "cockpit" to be harangued and humiliated by an English version of a McCarthy hearing. The incident we were told helped lead up to Franklin's abandoment of his long-held belief that the colonies should NOT separate. Then, our appetites whetted (i.e., Why this attack? What was its nature?), the biography begins.
If Brands is the superior writer and was first, why then all the excitement about the Isaacson biography? Well, Isaacson has Time Warner behind him and he did do a good job of recasting the H.W. Brands biography in his own words. And Franklin's astounding list of accomplishments certainly makes for interesting reading even in the hands of a lesser-skilled writer. The content itself makes up for the Cliff Notes approach to writing.
I first read the H.W. Brands biography. Then, I ordered this one for some new insights or quotes or examples. The fact is that Brands said it all and said it all better. Isaacson may have a greater appeal to those who like a bulleted list approach and frequent summaries to help them through a thick book. But, those who enjoy good prose, a biographer with a good if non-intrusive sense of humor, and seeing the victory of merit over a publicity machine, are best advised to get their hands on Brands's even more enjoyable biography.
I take Isaacson at his word that he has read a host of books other than the Brands book that is conspicuously absent from his bibliography. But, all he needed to read for his preparation the Brands biography of Franklin. (The sole examples that I can find of some original material are some quotes he made from Van Doren's biography of Franklin. Those, at least, didn't appear in the Brands book. So, I stand corrected by this exception. There is a little value added by the Isaacson version -- very little, but something.)
Good news: Franklin's inventiveness, dirty trick campaigns, wisdom, leadership, and flirtations are sure hits no matter which biography you pick up. But, if you want to see a truly five-star performance, do check out the Brands biography. The difference between the two is the difference between a work of literature and the Cliff notes, between the art of the biographer and the sterility of the summarizer.