Top positive review
The Renaissance American - The superbly written life of Ben Franklin
Reviewed in the United States on November 8, 2015
In his late 70’s, Franklin was the point man after the Revolutionary War for the three-cornered peace negotiations between England, France and the new United States. After years of this arduous work, Franklin was able to get back to what he loved – ideas, science, and inventions. He became increasingly irritated by having to change glasses when he read and when he looked at objects at a distance. So he took a pair of each set of glasses to his lens maker and told him to cut each in half and put the two halves together so the close reading was in the lower half and distance was in the upper half. It worked beautifully and the septuagenarian had invented bifocals. These two events – the delicate, careful and precise negotiations between individuals and nations and the invention of a simple but amazingly helpful device – embody the life of this truly incredible man. Brands’ biography catches the creative genius, the playfulness, the brilliant grasp of the English language, and the unique character of Benjamin Franklin.
Ten years ago I read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Franklin. It is very good. But Brands’ biography is 200 pages longer and there is no “filler.” There is more detail here and with Franklin the details are fascinating. Those details are often taken from his letters and writings. Brands knows when to interpolate primary source material and when not to. The writing is extremely smooth. The irony and light humor in so much of Franklin’s writing is also the way Brands writes this book. There are moments of genuine warmth and humor and, with Franklin, moments of a very human ribaldry such as his offer as a spry septuagenarian to Madame Brillon in Paris of his “beautiful, big horses.” Franklin’s relationship to his son William (who, as Royal governor of New Jersey, remained loyal to Britain) is spelled out here in detail and was much more complicated than I previously knew. Brands does a fine job of describing the early Franklin, his profession in printing and how that affected the rest of his life. Brands also points out in some detail Franklin’s arguments with the Penns and later his strained relationship with John Adams in France. The book is filled with fascinating tidbits of American history as experienced through the life of this unique human being. It is an excellent biography – intellectually stimulating, easy to follow, and completely enjoyable. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in American history.