In This Review

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
By Walter Isaacson
608 pp, Simon & Schuster, 2003

Benjamin Franklin was the most genial and engaging of the founders, and Isaacson has produced a biography to match. Franklin's life is a well-ploughed topic, but by concentrating on his relationships with family and friends, Isaacson sheds new light on America's first true world citizen. Not all of this light is flattering. Franklin was a cold and even brutal father; he missed the weddings of both his daughter and his son and was absent at the death of his wife. He seems to have valued sociability above intimacy; the qualities that made him so amiable to the world at large made him less than reliable in family relations. On the other hand, his genuine and generally chaste (Isaacson stoutly maintains) friendships with bright young women were marked by real interest in their opinions and respect for their intellectual qualities. Isaacson handles the twists and turns of Franklin's political views with sensitivity and understanding and makes an eloquent case for considering Franklin a major figure in the history of science. His discussion of Franklin's early prose works is charming and direct, as is his evident respect for historians such as Edmund Morgan and Bernard Bailyn whose earlier works on Franklin have set the bar for new biographies very high.