Saturday, December 15, 2012

What We've Forgotten About Ben Franklin

(Reflection on BENJAMIN FRANKLIN: AN AMERICAN LIFE by Walter Isaacson, New York: Simon and Schuster paperbacks, 2004.)

One hundred pages into this one-volume life of Ben Franklin, he is already an appealing character and exemplar of the America I knew as a child.  I wonder if we've lost touch with him?

His biographer finds significance in Franklin's lineage.  He was the youngest son of a youngest son, going back four more generations.  His family name "Franklin" itself was originally a designation for "tradesman." Not one trade, but many; not one place, but dozens, as the scion of each new generation sought his fortune away from the family -- our famous Benjamin included, running away from his brother's print shop in Boston to make his fortune in Philadelphia.  Franklin's father Josiah was a non-entity in other biographies I've read, but he emerges as a type familiar to me from my own father and his father.  Taking issue with the accepted belief that Josiah nixed young Ben's advancement to Harvard solely because of expense, Isaacson suggests that Josiah probably judged Ben to be unsuited for the clergy (Harvard being primarily a seminary). Instead, when Benjamin showed distaste for his father's candle-making operation -- and an interest in going to sea -- Josiah took Benjamin on a tour of Boston's trade shops, giving the boy a life-long appreciation for all trades, and an instant liking of printing.

Through his twenties, at least, Franklin's energy was devoted to self-improvement.  That's not too surprising, and we see that in the ubiquitous sports culture today.  In fact, I learned this morning that "No pain, no gain" is a bumper-sticker version of Poor Richard's "No gains without pains" (99).  What's different is how self-improvement for Franklin was to be achieved largely through community involvement.  He studied "how to win friends and influence people" as the older people in my life used to do, and reached the same conclusions:  Ask more questions than one answers, listen well, look for talents in others and faults in oneself, avoid direct confrontation and change minds indirectly by asking questions that make others see faults in their reasoning, and give all the credit to those who support one's project. 

After a couple of misadventures, including a fool's errand to London where he found himself without means, Franklin began his own advancement by "networking" with other young men in Philadelphia.  This "Junta" practiced debate, supported each other in public and in business, and delivered papers to each other on improvements for the town and for themselves.  It was through the Junta that Franklin set up the lending library (for self-improvement through study), fire department, and a regularized system of "watchmen" (police), staying in the background as an organizer,  giving credit to those who contributed to each project.

By the time America reached the 1920s, Franklin's approach to success through civic organizations was both well-established and scorned by modernist intellectuals.  Isaacson quotes D.H. Lawrence in the 1910s on "escaping" the "barbed-wire moral enclosure" of Franklinesque thinking (100).  In high school, after reading BABBITT (1922), I felt that author Sinclair Lewis had scored some easy points making fun of the unoriginal, uninspired, unintellectual title character, but had missed the goodwill and energy that came through even Lewis's disdain. 

The 60s counter-culture was a reiteration of Lewis's smug-ugly attitude.  Since then, the ironic view of earnest self-improvement has dominated the popular mindset.  It rears up in school, often -- except when the subject is sports.  Well, that's a topic for another blog post.

1 comment:

Bill said...

Franklin is a fascinating character, about whom I don't know as much as I'd like. I've found his time in France (particularly his celebrity status among the upper class there) to be especially interesting. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and sparking an interest.