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The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin [Paperback]

Gordon S. Wood
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
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Book Description

May 31 2005

From the most respected chronicler of the early days of the Republic—and winner of both the Pulitzer and Bancroft prizes—comes a landmark work that rescues Benjamin Franklin from a mythology that has blinded generations of Americans to the man he really was and makes sense of aspects of his life and career that would have otherwise remained mysterious. In place of the genial polymath, self-improver, and quintessential American, Gordon S. Wood reveals a figure much more ambiguous and complex—and much more interesting. Charting the passage of Franklin’s life and reputation from relative popular indifference (his death, while the occasion for mass mourning in France, was widely ignored in America) to posthumous glory, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin sheds invaluable light on the emergence of our country’s idea of itself.



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From Publishers Weekly

Eminent revolutionary historian Wood illuminates the life and times of perhaps our nation's most symbolic yet enigmatic forefather. Born of modest roots, Benjamin Franklin displayed from an early age a sharp mind and a literary gift, which served him as he went on to amass a small fortune, mostly as a printer, and to emerge as a civic leader. Wood, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for The Radicalism of the American Revolution, shows how Franklin's skills and charm enabled him to complete the remarkable transition from humble beginnings to gentlemanly status, occupying his later years with scientific experiments, philosophy and statesmanship. Wood also introduces us to Franklin the loyal British subject, who could scarcely conceive of a colonial government independent of the British, yet, in 1776, at the age of 70, came to play a key role in the Revolution. He secured the help of the French, who in turn helped ultimately to define Franklin as the "symbolic American." This is not a comprehensive biography. Instead, Wood's purpose is to supplant our common knowledge of Franklin as the iconic, folksy author of Poor Richard's Almanac with a different, richer portrait, a look at how a man "not even destined to be an American" became, paradoxically, the "symbol of America." What emerges is a fascinating portrait of Franklin, not only as a forefather but as a man. Illus.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School - This fascinating account provides a vivid picture of an extraordinary man adapting to changing times. Franklin was an intensely loyal British subject who looked forward to the time when he would take an active role in Britain's imperial schemes. His unshaken faith that the monarchy would inevitably behave fairly to the colonists blinded him to the growth of an increasingly powerful anti-British sentiment. Wood shows how Franklin was often completely out of touch with public opinion. At his death, America's brief, perfunctory eulogies sharply contrasted with the national mourning for him in France. In the 19th century, Franklin was rediscovered as the homespun philosopher, a simple man most noteworthy for his emphasis on self-improvement and industry. He was far more, as readers will discover. Black-and-white illustrations are included. - Kathy Tewell, Chantilly Regional Library, VA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Format:Hardcover
Benjamin Franklin is often considered the quintessential American. A recent best-selling biography of Franklin is entitled "The First American," and many other biographers have also played up the Americanness of his life. His story is a familiar one to most Americans. Franklin overcame his lowly beginnings through a combination of street smarts and hard work. He was intelligent without being theoretical. He was a social joiner but also wary of traditional class distinctions. Because of this, he seemed to typify what many modern Americans feel is most distinctive about their nation.
Historian Gordon S. Wood splashes cold water on these common assumptions of Franklin's life. Wood shows that in many ways Franklin was not typical of his fellow Americans at all. Once he made himself a success, for example, he stopped working and began to imitate a gentleman. After Franklin moved to Europe and got a taste of the civilized life, it was difficult for him to break away from it and return to America. He often misjudged the opinion of his fellow Americans, sometimes leading too far in front of them and sometimes following too far behind. As a result, he was far more popular in Europe than he was in his home land. After his death, the public grieving in the U.S. was mild compared to that of other revolutionary leaders.
Wood's book is largely a conventional biography that is distinctive from other Franklin biographies only in its interpretation. Wood sees the Sage of Philadelphia as a proto-American, someone who became American only in retrospect as more and more nineteenth-century Americans began to lead lives similar to Franklin's. Like him, they worked in the trades and strove for social respectability and financial success while also maintaining a working class identity. As these self-made men began to predominate, Franklin's life became a model for them, and the popularity among Americans that he never saw in his lifetime became his.
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5.0 out of 5 stars The definitive Franklin June 14 2004
Format:Hardcover
Gordon S. Wood is such a fabulous writer and such a skilled historian that it's impossible to not be impressed by his work. He writes history that reads so smoothly and argues so gracefully that it's impossible to not be convinced. Wood has a comfort zone that he likes to operate in, and all of his books are resident in this zone. It has two components. First, he constructs all his arguments in a "before" and "after" style in order to frame the central points of his thesis. He says, once upon a time things were like this. Then a critical event happened that changed everything. That event, for Wood, is always the Peace of Paris in 1783. But it's not the military or political or economic consequences of the Revolution that Wood insists changed everything. It's the change in social structure and, more to the point, the blurring of social class lines due to social mobility (both physical and economic) that moved America and its people from feudalism to democracy. THE RADICALISM OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION went something like this, and the current biography of Franklin puts him in this context. It's a view of Franklin in terms of social class. Now, I'm sure Dr. Wood would argue with me, saying that I reduce his theses down into far too simple terms. Granted, I'm not criticizing him. This work, as his others, is a penetrating study and should attract much scholarly and critical acclaim.
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5.0 out of 5 stars (Re)constructing Franklin June 8 2004
By Z. Weir
Format:Hardcover
In the last few years, a number of thorough revisionist biographies have been published, which take Revolutionary Period luminaries and political players as their subjects, meeting with both public and critical success. Take for example David McCullough's John Adams, Joseph Ellis's Founding Brothers and Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton, not to mention Walter Isaacson's Benjamin Franklin: An American Life: each of these works have contributed to the recent trend in American historical studies to reexamine the American Revolution and its key players from a contemporary historical perspective. Into this mix, Gordon Wood-noted historian of the American Revolution and Pulitzer-Prize winning author of The Radicalism of the American Revolution-has released his latest work The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin.
So, why do we need another biography of Franklin? Gordon Wood's answer: we don't. The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin represents little effort on behalf of its author to attempt to provide or refashion a definitive portrait of Franklin's life from self-made printer to world-renown writer, philosopher, scientist and diplomat. Wood's study does not set out to present a new or profoundly nuanced interpretation of Benjamin Franklin the man, but rather dissects the many-layered and convoluted construction of Benjamin Franklin the American symbol, the character of the communal American cultural imagination.
As Wood argues and carefully documents, Franklin's reputation-as canonized during the progressive times of the early 19th century and arguably extending to the present day-did not result from the mutual respect of and commendation from fellow members of the Revolutionary generation.
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