Book Review: Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson


Author: Walter Isaacson
Title: Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
Publication Info:  RecordedBooks (2003), Audio CD
ISBN: 1402592957

Summary/Review:  I’ve been learning more about this early American leader for my BBF walking tour and I find him increasingly fascinating the more I learn about him.  Isaacson writes a lively narrative with a good balance between historical accuracy and popular history as well as warts & all without sensationalism.

I won’t go into a detailed summary of the book but here are a few elements that stand out for me:

  • Isaacson goes beyond simple biographical details and makes a good attempt at an intellectual history of Franklin, especially in the earlier parts of the book.
  • Franklin, for all his virtues, was not above getting dirty in politics.  It’s interesting to compare to the recent book I read about Aaron Burr and how differently their posthumous reputations have been adjudged when they were both very much men of their times.  Then there’s the  idolatrous manner in which the Founding Fathers are revered in comparison to today’s “corrupt politicians” which just isn’t realistic.
  • Franklin had an interesting habit of forming a surrogate family around him when he was away from home for extended periods, acting in an avuncular role for bright young women and his own grandsons.  Yet he was often distant from his own children and spent many, many years separated from his wife.
  • Another interesting contrast:  Franklin has been called “the first American” and famously wore frontier-style clothing when visiting the French court, yet he seemed to jump at any opportunity to go to Europe and lived abroad in London and Paris for extended portions of his life.

All in all this is a great introduction to a fascinating and hard to understand man.

Recommended books: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin
Rating: ****

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