John's Reviews > The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin

The First American by H.W. Brands
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's review
Jun 11, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: biography, us-revolution-and-early-republic

How good is this biography? This good: when Ben Franklin finally dies, as of course we knew he must, after 84 years and 700+ pages, I actually felt sad. Brands is that good at taking one of the most familiar, popular, and oft-portrayed/parodied/pastiched figures in all of American history and rendering him fresh and fully human. Obviously it helps that he's dealing with Franklin, one of the most accomplished and fascinating figures of his age. But Founding Father biographies can sometimes feel like a tour of a wax museum; biographies of figures this long-lived and multi-faceted can fall prey to being a kind of running checklist of high points ("Poor Richard - check; electricity - check; Declaration of Independence - check..."). Brands instead gives us a Franklin who, by the end, feels like an actual person we might actually know, were we so lucky. And while Brands clearly admires Franklin -- and, let's face it, there's much to admire -- his book never descends into hagiography. It's also a great read, its lively writing marred only by a penchant for puns and the occasional leaps of faith without evidence (a few too many "Franklin must have known..."; "we don't know, but can imagine..." moments; this does indeed enliven the reading, but offended the academic historian in me).

I confess I'm a Founding Father junkie and awfully fond of Franklin in particular, and that probably skews my perspective just a bit here; I also haven't read the two other big Franklin biographies from the last decade (Isaacson's and Wood's), so I can't make that comparison. But this a book I'd recommend to anybody, just as a well-told tale of a life worth telling.

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