Big Ben

The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin

by Gordon S. Wood
Penguin, 299 pp., $25.95

Publishers, publicists, and broadcasters love anniversaries, those occasions when historical events and characters become marketable artifacts in a commercial culture of celebration. Next year the British will be inundated with books, programs, exhibitions, and memorabilia to commemorate the two hundredth anniversary of the death at the Battle of Trafalgar of a national hero, Admiral Horatio Nelson. In 2006 the Americans and the French—though probably not the British—celebrate the three hundredth anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Franklin, America’s oldest Founding Father. No doubt the hoopla will be even greater than for the admiral. On such occasions sentiment and national pride get wrapped in the panoply of history to make myth and memory, shaped as a usable past for public consumption.

It will be interesting to see how twenty-first-century Britons remember Nelson, whose legacy—as brilliant leader of the navy, executioner of the flower of the Neapolitan enlightenment, innovative strategist, national savior, and impossibly vainglorious womanizer—is far from unambiguous. The response to Franklin is a little easier to predict. As Gordon Wood has already explained in these pages, Franklin has long been seen as an exemplary American character: “He has represented everything Americans like about themselves—their level-headedness, common sense, pragmatism, ingenuity, and get-up-and-go.”1 His critics, such as Poe, Melville, and Thoreau, saw the same qualities, though in a less charitable light. For them, says Wood, Franklin embodied “all of America’s bourgeois complacency, its get-ahead materialism, its utilitarian obsession with success…. He eventually became Main Street and Babbittry rolled into one.” As John Kenneth Galbraith concluded in his elegant dissection of The Affluent Society, “Benjamin Franklin is the sacred archetype of the American genius and nothing may be done to disturb his position.”2 So we can be reasonably sure that 2006 will see the resurrection of Franklin as the embodiment of what Walter Isaacson in his Benjamin Franklin: An American Life lists as the virtues of “diligence, honesty, industry, and temperance” together with the reiteration of the belief that self-help and limitless opportunity mark the American way.3

Wood’s dazzling biographical essay The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin takes on the Franklin myth in two different ways. On the one hand it recuperates “the historic Franklin who did not know the kind of massively symbolic folk hero he would become.” On the other it sets out to show how the mythical Franklin was fashioned. Both the man and the myth get put back into history. Nowhere is this more evident than in the manner of Wood’s treatment of Franklin as a historical character. Most such discussions seek to identify the essential Franklin. Isaacson, for all his willingness to speak of Franklin’s complexity, talks about peeling back the layers of his character, as if there was some central, stable core. Wood’s approach is radically different. He makes no attempt to portray a universal, timeless Franklin, but in a sequence of brilliant chapters unravels the complex changes in circumstance and shifts in view that occurred throughout Franklin’s rich life.

Wood constantly confronts us…

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