Benjamin Franklin: An American Life Paperback – Jun 1 2004
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Benjamin Franklin, writes journalist and biographer Walter Isaacson, was that rare Founding Father who would sooner wink at a passer-by than sit still for a formal portrait. What's more, Isaacson relates in this fluent and entertaining biography, the revolutionary leader represents a political tradition that has been all but forgotten today, one that prizes pragmatism over moralism, religious tolerance over fundamentalist rigidity, and social mobility over class privilege. That broadly democratic sensibility allowed Franklin his contradictions, as Isaacson shows. Though a man of lofty principles, Franklin wasn't shy of using sex to sell the newspapers he edited and published; though far from frivolous, he liked his toys and his mortal pleasures; and though he sometimes gave off a simpleton image, he was a shrewd and even crafty politician. Isaacson doesn't shy from enumerating Franklins occasional peccadilloes and shortcomings, in keeping with the iconoclastic nature of our time--none of which, however, stops him from considering Benjamin Franklin "the most accomplished American of his age," and one of the most admirable of any era. And heres one bit of proof: as a young man, Ben Franklin regularly went without food in order to buy books. His example, as always, is a good one--and this is just the book to buy with the proceeds from the grocery budget. --Gregory McNamee --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Publishers Weekly
Following closely on the heels of Edmund Morgan's justly acclaimed Benjamin Franklin, Isaacson's longer biography easily holds its own. How do the two books differ? Isaacson's is more detailed; it lingers over such matters as the nature of Franklin's complex family circumstances and his relations with others, and it pays closer attention to each of his extraordinary achievements. Morgan's is more subtle and reflective. Each in its different way is superb. Isaacson (now president of the Aspen Institute, he is the former chairman of CNN and a Henry Kissinger biographer) has a keen eye for the genius of a man whose fingerprints lie everywhere in our history. The oldest, most distinctive and multifaceted of the founders, Franklin remains as mysterious as Jefferson. After examining the large body of existing Franklin scholarship as skillfully and critically as any scholar, Isaacson admits that his subject always "winks at us" to keep us at bay-which of course is one reason why he's so fascinating. Unlike, say, David McCullough's John Adams, which seeks to restore Adams to public affection, this book has no overriding agenda except to present the story of Franklin's life. Unfortunately, for all its length, it's a book of connected short segments without artful, easy transitions So whether this fresh and lively work will replace Carl Van Doren's beloved 1938 Benjamin Franklin in readers' esteem remains to be seen.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
In particular, I admired how Isaacson explored the nature of Franklin's religious belief, letting Franklin speak for himself on what he felt man's duty to God and his neighbor consisted of. I also appreciated the seriousness with which Isaacson dealt with Franklin's often underappreciated scientific achievements, clarifying just how beneficial the effects of his experiments with lightning and electricity were almost immediately (within a very short time, many lives were saved around the world just because of Franklin's lightning rod, etc.). Lastly, as readers of Franklin's autobiography know, he was very funny, and I was glad that Isaacson allowed that charm and humor to be displayed.
Edmund S. Morgan's recent biography of Franklin, for all its strengths, has to take second place to Isaacson's outstanding book. I know this review probably sounds like it was written by Walter Isaacson himself under a pseudonym or something, but the truth is, I can't really think of a single criticism to make of this one.
We all have our pre-conceived notions of Franklin, including him out flying his kite to try and link electricity with lightning, or him dozing off during the lengthy and tedious deliberations at the Constitutional Convention. Isaacson peels back the layers of the story a bit, reminding us how often our vision of Franklin derives from Franklin's own pen, such as the vision of the young teen arriving in Philadelphia with loaves of bread, looking ridiculous as he passed by the window of his future wife (a scene written by Franklin at age 65 when he penned his autobiography).
The book does a very good job not only of recounting the many accomplishments of Franklin, but also of exploring his middle class ideals and values. For example, Isaacson's book reminds us that while Franklin was never terribly pious or religious throughout his life, he favored organized religion because churches encouraged citizens to behave well, and to do good things. There was always a sense of pragmatism and public service in everything Franklin did and believed in. As a publisher, if he thought a public policy or official was wrong and needed to be criticized publicly, he would invent characters (to avoid libel suits) to write humorous and sometimes scathing attacks that were basically anonymous.
The book also dwells repeatedly on the Franklin's love and admiration of the middle class as the real core of American society.Read more ›
Walter Isaacson, formerly CNN Chairman and Time Magazine Editor, provides us with a 590 page portrait of the Founding Father who winks at us. This revolutionary leader prized pragmatics, religious tolerance and social mobility. Isaacson pictures a man with a vision for his new country that was based on middle class virtues and values. He pictures a man instinctively comfortable with the strength and wisdom of the country's shopkeepers.
He pictures a man who based his morality on leading a "good" life, serving his country and on the belief that salvation would be achieved by good works.
Franklin was a complex person. And Isaacson succeeds in drawing lessons from his life that are more complex that those usual drawn by founding father's foes and fans. I, for one, am grateful author had the time to thoughtfully explore them. These lessons are as vital today as they were during the revolutionary time in which Benjamin Franklin lived.
This book was a fascinating read that reintroduced me to the American Ideal that has probably been largely forgotten. A man like Franklin could only have existed and thrived in America. The principles he practiced, and the freedoms he loved, are the ones many of us hold dear today, though we largely take them for granted.
Franklin was the epitome of the Renaissance Man - scientist, philosopher, writer, politician - he touched on many subjects and excelled in them all. What an amazing sight it must have been to witness the meeting of Franklin and Virgil in Paris, as this novel describes.
After reading this book I immediately began reading other books about the Founding Fathers. A great read!
Most recent customer reviews
I bought this book after reading the Steve Jobs biography by the same author. The book is as well written and a joy to read as the Jobs biography. Read morePublished 1 month ago by cruzing
A wonderful biography on a very unique individual; a businessman, expert networker, an entrepreneur, a true American patriot... Read morePublished 7 months ago by James DiCenzo
Incredible book,incredible man and incredible writer.
It reads so fast and interesting.
During reading I became so much more productive myself as
Franklin would make... Read more
Let me first start off by saying that I have read few biographies. But Isaacson made a biography that is both readable and balanced between Franklin's personal and professional... Read morePublished on July 18 2004 by Sheila Tillman
As a direct descendant of Simon Meredith (1663-1745), father of Hugh Meredith, Benjamin Franklin's erstwhile business partner in Philadelphia, I looked forward with great interest... Read morePublished on July 11 2004 by Thomas L. Markey
Isaacson's writing style impressed me for a short time, but he becomes rather pedantic quickly, dwelling on seemingly minor points for long periods until you just can't take any... Read morePublished on June 27 2004
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