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The Americanization of Benjamin Franklinby Gordon S Wood
Synopses & Reviews
Central to America's idea of itself is the character of Benjamin Franklin. We all know him, or think we do: In recent works and in our inherited conventional wisdom, he remains fixed in place as a genial polymath and self-improver who was so very American that he is known by us all as the first American. The problem with this beloved notion of Franklin's quintessential Americanness, Gordon Wood shows us in this marvelous, revelatory book, is that it's simply not true. And it blinds us to the no less admirable or important but far more interesting man Franklin really was and leaves us powerless to make sense of the most crucial events of his life.
Indeed, thinking of Franklin as the last American would be less of a hindrance to understanding many crucial aspects of his life — his preoccupation with becoming a gentleman; his longtime loyalty to the Crown and burning ambition to be a player in the British Empire's power structure; the personal character of his conversion to revolutionary; his reasons for writing the Autobiography; his controversies with John and Samuel Adams and with Congress; his love of Europe and conflicted sense of national identity; the fact that his death was greeted by mass mourning in France and widely ignored in America. But Franklin did become the Revolution's necessary man, Wood shows, second behind George Washington. Why was his importance so denigrated in his own lifetime and his image so distorted ever since?
Ironically, Franklin's diplomacy in France, which was essential to American victory, was the cause of the suspicion that clouded his good name at home — and also the stage on which the "first American" persona made its debut. The consolidation of this mirage of Franklin would await the early nineteenth century, though, when the mask he created in his posthumously published autobiography proved to be the model the citizens of a striving young democracy needed. The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin is a landmark work, a magnificent fresh vision of Franklin's life and reputation, filled with profound insights into the Revolution and into the emergence of America's idea of itself.
"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. Agent, Andrew Wylie. (May 24) Forecast: Has readers' curiosity about Franklin been sated by Edmund Morgan's recent brief study and Walter Isaacson's full-length bio, both bestsellers? Wood's reputation could still give this legs." Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Well written and researched, this book provides a fresh perspective on one of America's most distinguished figures." Library Journal
"A portrait of Ben Franklin in a decidedly contrarian — though careful — bit of revisionism....An illuminating companion to Walter Isaacson's Benjamin Franklin and other recent studies that cast the Founder in a new light." Kirkus Reviews
Wood scrutinizes the less typically-American traits possessed by Franklin — such as his longtime loyalty to the Crown — and why he still became one of the Revolution's necessary men.
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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