Friday, August 16, 2019

Character in Acting

From Chronicles:
This brings us to Benjamin Franklin, the subject under review. Two new studies, both inspired at least in part by Yale's monumental edition-in-progress of Franklin's papers, have recently appeared. One is the work of a seasoned English student of 18th-century America, Esmond Wright, who has undertaken the first comprehensive biography of Franklin since Carl Van Doren's appeared in 1938. The other is the work of a gifted amateur, Williard Randall, who has focused upon Franklin's strange relationship with his bastard son, William. Wright's study is judicious and informed, although he has overlooked some of the best Franklin scholarship of the past several decades. Randall's is slanted and riddled with errors—yet it is a gripping tale in which William Franklin, as the last royal governor of New Jersey, emerges as a sympathetic and tragic-heroic figure. 
Wright virtually ignores William, which is easy enough to do; except for a brief but impressive fling at soldiering, William's only permitted character until he was in his early 30's was that of the dutiful son. In that capacity, as Randall demonstrates, he was extremely helpful to a father who rarely gave him due recognition for what he did. (It was the son, for instance, not the father, who discovered that lightning moves from the earth to the heavens instead of the other way around, but Benjamin took credit for the discovery.) Then in 1762 William obtained, through his own connections, the appointment as governor of New Jersey. His character was now that of faithful servant to the King, and he played the role with great courage when the movement for independence came—suffering privation and imprisonment as a consequence, as well as never being forgiven by his father. 
Both authors attempt to cope with the central and unavoidable problem in studying Benjamin Franklin: On the basis of the record as well as the judgments of contemporaries, Franklin appears to have been not one character but a multiplicity of them. His first important role is that of Poor Richard, the apostle of such bourgeois virtues as thrift, frugality, industry, honesty, independence, and the pursuit of wealth. 
Then comes the rationalist, inventor, and man of science, who demonstrates that lightning is electricity, invents the stove that bears his name, and advances sophisticated observations and theories about the movement of storms and the course and effects of the Gulf Stream. Next he has considerable success as a politician, gaining power as a demagogic champion of the people against the privileged few, while simultaneously becoming wealthy as a sycophantic placeman. (William indicated how far his character had departed from his father's when he remarked a few years later that "it is a most infallible symptom of the dangerous state of liberty when the chief men of a free country show a greater regard to popularity than to their own judgment.") (Read more.)

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