Benjamin Franklin. By Carl Van Doren. New York: The Viking Press. $375.
Eight years ago Carl Van Doren gave us the story of Jonathan Swift, the genius who, moved by hate and scorn, did everything the wrong way. Now, in a volume three times as long—and which, as he says, might as easily have been three times longer—he gives us Benjamin Franklin, the genius who did everything, or almost everything, the right way. It was proper that the biography of Swift should have appeared in 1930, the year after the Great Awakening. As for the Franklin biography, this phrenetic present has not received a more timely or more salutary febrifuge, if only it could be administered. (One wonders what effect this story of one of the greatest of all diplomats, whose secret was forthright truth, would have had upon four gentlemen in Munich if they had been compelled to read and understand it.)
As for Mr. Van Doren himself, he has completely and unconditionally surrendered to the Franklin spell. To say this is not to deny that he has retained his side arms in the form of a discriminating scholarship, munitioned with a convincing armory of documentary citations. It is almost as difficult to resist surrender to Mr. Van Doren. While reserving our own side arms for the sake of dignity and possible use, let it be admitted in the capitulation that here we have the most complete, the most erudite, the most understanding, the most satisfying of all Franklin biographies. It is the book that Franklin scholars have been waiting for since Parton.
Franklin, more than any other, expressed in himself those characteristics that we regard as belonging to the American people. He was the voice not merely of the eighteenth century, but of America. In his unparalleled progress from an obscure tradesman to the height of world acclaim as philosopher, diplomatist, scientist, and statesman, he embodied the democratic ideal. That a printer could lay aside his stick, pick up the Leyden jar, master it, and make himself the leading authority on electricity within six years is, of course, less a commentary on democracy than on Franklin’s genius. But in each of the multiform facets of Franklin’s genius, the common man may find an exalted expression of his own aims or his own optimistic beliefs. So perfectly did Franklin, in all of his achievements no less than in Poor Richard’s philosophy, fix himself in the minds of the American people that only he of that remarkable Revolutionary group has reality in a personal sense. To say this is not to lessen the greatness of Washington and others. But to the common man Washington is a hero in the abstract, Jefferson a school of political theory, Hamilton its antithesis, the Adamses a career family, the Lees a tradition of public service, Madison a political scientist. Franklin is a human being, enlarged to the stature of greatness in an unbelievable variety of forms. He was a printer, one of the best and certainly the most successful in the colonies. He was the first great advertising genius. He was a philanthropist who forgot himself in perfecting his philanthropy. He was a scientist recognized as a peer by the leading scientists of the day, but his science was utilitarian and when he wrote of science he wrote for the common understanding in a way that few scientists ever have. He was a politician, one of the smoothest that ever staged a deal (and his show in the House of Commons has never been surpassed). He was a revolutionist—and in his old age. He was a philosopher who accepted life with a serene and kind and sometimes Rabelaisian humor. He preached thrift and cared nothing for money. He praised industry and he was never idle, least of all in that powerhouse that was his intellect, yet he was never “busy.” He was modest and often stood in the background in order not to endanger some desired end, yet he produced the first great autobiography (aside from Rousseau’s) and admitted—as he admitted all of his foibles—that vanity played a part in it. His success story is unparalleled, yet he remained untouched by success, dying as he had begun, B. Franklin, Printer.
Franklin’s career embraced so much of America and so much of the eighteenth century, and his genius invaded so many realms, that appraisal is difficult. Mr. Van Doren has come as near as anyone to a realization of Franklin’s stature and he has done it by the expedient of recording as much of his career as anyone could in a single volume, leaving interpretation, in its narrow sense, to the reader. If occasionally Franklin appears to receive credit for achievements for which he was more the medium than the engineer, the fault is as much with biography as a form as it is with the biographer, for biography almost inevitably magnifies the importance of the individual role. Even so, as in the series of achievements of Franklin as President of the Pennsylvania Executive Council (which may be noted as one of Mr. Van Doren’s contributions), Franklin was an almost perfect medium through which the inchoate desires of men could be translated into effective action.
To record the bare outlines of Franklin’s career and to give him, as Mr. Van Doren has done, more of his purely personal attributes than any other biographer, required an absolute economy of words in the treatment of events. This rule of brevity produced some generalized statements which will distress the specialists. But the specialists may look to more proper sources for their minutiae. This work, well balanced, symmetrically proportioned, skilfully wrought, is, as Franklin would have liked it to be, for the American people. They may well be proud to call Franklin an American, proud also that a great biography such as this could be produced in America. Both Franklin and Mr. Van Doren give reassurance to the faith that sometimes falters.