Benjamin Franklin: A Biography in His Own Words
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
Road to Revolution: Benjamin Franklin in England, 1765-1775
Ben Franklin: Patriot or Spy?
The Papers of Benjamin Franklin
For over twelve months now I have been in pursuit of Benjamin Franklin—rereading his autobiography, plowing systematically through his letters and essays, sampling the deluge of Franklin books that flow from the presses. Franklin is still, I suspect, a million-dollar-a-year industry, possibly more. Who buys, who reads, who believes? Why has Franklin resonated down the centuries? Does he still ring loud and clear to the present generation? Why, again, were his talents so appropriate to his age? Is he, above all, a man whose depth of character combined with genius put him into that category of great men whom time and change in society and politics can never topple?
That, oddly enough, is the easiest question to answer. No. He does not belong with Shakespeare, Newton, Washington, Beethoven, Darwin, Marx, Freud, and the rest of the indubitably great men. He obviously lacked in science, in politics, in life a quality hard to define—passion, vision, penetration, whatever that mysterious quality is that transforms great capacities into towering genius. He changed neither politics nor science in any fundamental sense. Having lived with Franklin for twelve months I no longer, however, doubt his capacities; I do not under-estimate the power or force of his character; or even at times his originality and, at others, his daring. He was a very great man ravaged by common sense, and perhaps ultimately defeated by those very controls of his temperament that led to his immediate success.
I did not think this at first. Renewing acquaintance with him, I felt initially a distaste for Franklin. And when I reread D.H. Lawrence’s article on him in Studies in Classical American Literature I thought, how perceptive, how wise. Of course this essay was written in the most repellent form of Lawrentian prose. “All the qualities of a great man, and never more than a great citizen. Middle-sized, sturdy, snuff-colored Doctor Franklin, one of the soundest citizens that ever tried or used venery.” That phrase “used venery” rankled with Lawrence; the dark animal forces are unlikely to be a subject of common sense, and Lawrence abhorred Franklin’s wise advice to the incontinent young man to take an old, not a young mistress, pointing out that the trunk might still be succulent though the limbs were aging. “And that, as in any craft, there was a knack in making love, more likely to be known to the old practitioner than the young novice.” Naturally such bland common sense was an anathema to Lawrence: it indicated an absence of passion, an absence of those deep primeval drives, not merely sexual, that, had he possessed them, might have lifted a man of Franklin’s qualities into true greatness.
Franklin for Lawrence was never more than a great citizen. Certainly this is perceptive, certainly it touches the heart of the matter, as Lawrence so often did in a few almost hysterical sentences that read like Carlyle at his worst. And because of the scream in the prose, Lawrence’s …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.