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More Johnson Than Franklin

ISSUE:  Summer 1934

Imaginary Conversations ivilh Franklin, By William Cabell Bruce. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. $2.00,

In france during the latter half of the eighteenth century, conversation, so long regarded as a mere means of communication, was elevated, among the upper circles of society, into one of the major arts. Talk, quantities of it, was regarded as scarcely less important than food and drink. It must have, however, not only quantity but quality. It must, of course, be urbane, but it must also be witty and light enough to be whisked easily from one mouth to another. Even though it might turn upon a serious, even a solemn subject, it must, to be approved, avoid the ponderous and the oratorical.

In Senator William Cabell Bruce’s versions of the possible conversations that took place around the portly Ameri-can envoy to the court of Louis XVI, we feel compelled to say that we find Dr. Franklin talking more like Dr. Johnson than himself. We have difficulty recognizing the Franklin who admired, and strove to imitate, an Addisonian grace in speaking as well as writing.

Not, indeed, that he was Addisonian on all occasions; in his graver moments he was wont, as we recall the facts, to speak simply, clearly, and strongly, without affectation and without undue Latinity. But in Mr. Bruce’s book he insists, even in his more relaxed moments, on being the orator addressing a public meeting rather than the genial, twinkling conversationalist. Thus he quiets a tiff among his colleagues as follows:

Peace, my friends! Even the beasts of the forest lay aside their feuds in the face of a common peril, and shall we still harbor discord among ourselves when the valiant, patient Washington is beset by foes on every hand, and Burgoyne and Howe are seeking to build an impassable wall between New England and the Middle and Southern States?

Even those persons whom Franklin addresses seem moved to become orators too, and we find Austin, the American messenger who brought to Paris the news of Burgoyne’s surrender, relating the circumstances thus:

Cut off from junction with Sir Wm. Howe by the sleepless vigilance of Washington, unable to obtain any fresh recruits to offset those that were constantly pouring from every hill and valley, he finally, after doing all that a brave commander could do, surrendered. . . .

The sentiments that Senator Bruce ascribes to Franklin are truly Franklinian, and the history that these conversations convey is authentic and has its value; but we could wish that the remarks of the good Doctor and of his friends, as here set down, sounded a little less as if they had been previously corrected and committed to memory from printed slips.


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