From the Publisher
"A labor of love balanced by thoughtful criticism. There is nothing like it."—American Historical Review
"Recent books on Ben Franklin abound. However, this work, in the classic multivolume 'life and times' genre, is especially valuable. Highly recommended."—Choice
"Veteran Franklin scholar Lemay offers a highly detailed examination of one of the most fascinating of America's founders."—Publishers Weekly
"Lemay's final output will do for the popular interest in our revolution and early founding what Douglas Southall Freeman's magisterial Lee's Lieutenants did for our fixation on the Civil War. . . . I can't wait for Mr. Lemay's next volumes."—Washington Times
"Under Mr. Lemay's narrative spell, Franklin emerges as the greatest of Americans. . . . It takes an awesome biography to do justice to such a man, and that is exactly what Mr. Lemay is writing."—New York Sun
"The authoritative compendium of Franklin's remarkable exploits and contributions."—Times Higher Education Supplement
"Lemay's magnificent opus manages to be accessible and interesting for the general reader while also valuable for the specialist. . . . For readers who want to luxuriate in the life and times of a fascinating man and who enjoy seeing how an expert historian examines evidence and reaches conclusions, this biography is indispensable. Highly recommended."—Library Journal (starred review)
"This colossal study . . . does for Franklin what Dumas Malone did for Thomas Jefferson. In sheer comprehensiveness, it surpasses any previous (and, one imagines, future) treatment. When completed, it promises to provide just about as complete a factual account of Franklin's life as it is possible to put together."—Journal of American History
Veteran Franklin scholar Lemay offers a highly detailed examination of the life of one of the most fascinating of America's founders. In volume one we meet a precociously clever Franklin, who first experimented with a kite around age 12 and at the ripe old age of 16 wrote his polemical Silence Dogood essays, which established his place in the American literary firmament. Lemay usefully situates Franklin in 18th-century mores, but too often loses sight of the forest for the trees. An entire chapter is devoted to Franklin's brother James, who undoubtedly had a huge influence on his sibling, but the chapter isn't tightly connected to Ben. In volume two Lemay recreates Franklin's personal life: the birth of his illegitimate son, William (Franklin scholars have speculated endlessly about the identity of William's mother; Lemay guesses she was the wife of one of Franklin's friends); Franklin's marriage to Deborah Read, whom he praised as a "plain country" woman, and "the Joy of my Life," and the death of Franklin's father, Josiah. Franklin's civic side also emerges. Lemay describes his affiliation with the Freemasons and argues (in contrast to some earlier biographers) that Franklin was actively interested in political squabbles in Pennsylvania throughout the 1740s. The liveliest chapter focuses on Franklin's role in the establishment of Philadelphia's Library Company; the great library was, in some ways, Franklin's church, a "manifestation of Franklin's belief in democracy and egalitarianism." Frustratingly, Lemay breaks up chapters into countless short subsections, disrupting the narrative flow. Scholars will find these volumes informative, but general readers will do better with livelier, more compact books by Walter Isaacson, Edmund Morgan or Gordon Wood. (Oct.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
The past three years have witnessed an outpouring of impressive books on Franklin, including two full-length biographies: Edmund Morgan's Benjamin Franklin and Walter Isaacson's Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. Lemay's project (to total seven volumes when completed) will outweigh all the others (both figuratively and literally), with these initial volumes appearing in time to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Franklin's birth. Is this mammoth biography worth the effort? Yes! Lemay (English, Univ. of Delaware; The Canon of Benjamin Franklin, 1722-1776) gives far more attention to Franklin's literary output than has any other biographer. In these early volumes, he demonstrates how Franklin became not just the most important journalist in Colonial America but perhaps the most important writer and publisher of any sort. By the 1740s, Franklin had become, in Lemay's words, Philadelphia's indispensable citizen: publisher and editor of the leading newspaper and almanac, founder and chief officer of the Library Company, clerk of the Colonial assembly, grand master of the Masons, founder of the Union Fire Company, and postmaster, among many other activities. These volumes could have used tighter editing, as they contain needless repetitions. But Lemay's magnificent opus manages to be accessible and interesting for the general reader while also valuable for the specialist. Not everyone will relish a three-page discussion of the date when the young Franklin first arrived in Philadelphia from Boston or an equally long examination of the birth date of Franklin's illegitimate son William. But for readers who want to luxuriate in the life and times of a fascinating man and who enjoy seeing how an expert historian examines evidence and reaches conclusions, this biography is indispensable. Highly recommended for all public and academic libraries.-T.J. Schaeper, St. Bonaventure Univ., NY Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Read an Excerpt
In August 1723 seventeen-year-old Franklin found himself jobless and ostracized. He had been working for his older brother, James Franklin, who was now twenty-six. Six months before, when James was forbidden by the authorities to continue printing his newspaper unless it were first supervised by the secretary of Massachusetts, he brought out the newspaper under the name of Benjamin Franklin. Since Franklin was apprenticed to James, the latter returned him the cancelled indenture so that he could, if challenged, show it to the Massachusetts authorities. At the same time, Franklin and James signed another, secret indenture, whereby Franklin agreed to continue his apprenticeship with James. But the brothers often argued, and when they next quarreled, James beat his young brother, and Franklin quit. He could do so, for he knew that James could not produce the new indenture to the authorities and force Franklin to come back to work. Later, in the Autobiography, Franklin ruminated: "It was not fair in me to take this Advantage, and this I therefore reckon one of the first Errata of my Life: But the Unfairness of it weigh'd little with me, when under the Impressions of Resentment, for the Blows his Passion too often urg'd him to bestow upon me. Tho' He was otherwise not an ill-natur'd man. Perhaps I was too saucy and provoking" (20).
Franklin knew that he was as fast and efficient a printer as his brother or any Boston journeyman, and he assumed that he could find work at one of the several other Boston printers. He probably first went to Thomas Fleet, a young printer whom he knew well, but Fleet refused to hire him. Since Fleet's business was expanding and since good journeymen printers were rare in Boston, Franklin was puzzled. But when the printers John Allen and Samuel Kneeland also refused to hire him, he began to suspect the truth. Old Bartholomew Green, his father's friend and fellow member of the Old South Church, a person whom Franklin had known all his life, also turned him down. Franklin realized that his brother had told every local printer that Franklin was really still apprenticed to him. No Boston printer would hire him. What was he to do? There were no printers in the surrounding towns, and he could not sail from Boston, for his father and his brother could force him back if he tried to book passage. Besides, he had little money, not enough to pay for a voyage.
Worse, he had become notorious in Boston as an infidel. He enjoyed arguing and practiced a Socratic method of asking questions and having his opponents agree with statements that gradually led them to conclusions they had not foreseen. He confessed in the Autobiography that his "indiscrete Disputations about Religion began to make me pointed at with Horror by good People, as an Infidel or Atheist" (20). Moreover, he was infamous as a radical, whose newspaper writings insulted the best-known ministers of Boston, Cotton and Increase Mather, and who satirized the old, greatly respected chief justice, Samuel Sewall. The sensitive adolescent found that his writing and his private Socratic arguments had ostracized him from many good people in Boston. Some parents told their children to have nothing to do with him. How did he find himself in this predicament, and how did he make such a mess of his life by age seventeen? And what could he do?