Ben Franklin, as Seen in His Own Words

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN: HIS LIFE AS HE WROTE IT Edited by Esmond Wright Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press 292 pp., $25 BENJAMIN FRANKLIN was immensely popular in his time, and that affection has lasted through the centuries. What makes the robust Philadelphian such a favorite? It's more than the ageless wisdom of ``Poor Richard's Almanac,'' which today's Americans - caught up with credit cards and junk bonds - would do well to review. More, also, than his insights on electricity and politics. Franklin's appeal may reside, ultimately and simply, in his boundless humanity.

As Esmond Wright, biographer of Franklin, writes in the introduction to this thoughtful compilation: ``To meet him is to meet one of the shrewdest, wisest, and most versatile of men, a great storyteller, with an infinite curiosity, and an infinite capacity for laughing at himself as well as others.''

Consider this by Franklin, on his early training by a father who believed meals were a time for sharing thoughts, more than food: ``By this means he turned our attention to what was good, just, and prudent ... and little or no notice was ever taken of what related to the victuals on the table ... so that I was brought up in such perfect inattention to those matters as to be quite indifferent what kind of food was set before me, and so unobservant of it, that to this day, if I am asked I can scarce tell a few hours after dinner, what I dined upon.''

Did he maintain that standard even in later years as a favorite in French parlor society? He admitted a liking for French cuisine and the company of French aristocratic ladies. Wright points out that Franklin, whatever his setting, was ever concerned with charting his moral course and setting in markers. The complex circumstances of his diplomatic career may have made it difficult to stay the course always.

During his years in politics and as America's representative in London and Paris, he was engulfed in some of the great disputes of the day - concerning liberty and just governance. His conduct, one assumes, was guided by such observations as this, on the dangers of a ``disputacious'' turn of mind: Such a tendency, he wrote in his uncompleted autobiography, ``is apt to become a very bad habit, making people often extremely disagreeable in company, by the contradiction that is necessary to bring it into practice, and thence, besides souring and spoiling the conversation, is productive of disgusts and perhaps enmities where you may have occasion for friendship.''

One section of Wright's book deals with Franklin's circuitous negotiations with the British Cabinet through his acquaintance with Lord Howe (later General Howe, who commanded the British in the Revolutionary War) and with Howe's sister (who enjoyed playing chess with Franklin). The American's ability to couch a sharp-edged argument in artfully chosen diplomatic language, comes through. But it wasn't enough to bring Parliament around to accepting his point of view. Wright's organization of Franklin's writings is chronological. We get insights into his youth, his false starts and eventual success as a printer, and his personal relationships. Notes on Franklin's scientific experiments are included, as well as flirtatious letters to ladies of the French court. It's not all intriguing - some of the governmental matters require some slogging. The 18th-century syntax can't be speed-read.

But this book certainly does what the introduction promises. It allows one to become much better acquainted with the enduring Mr. Franklin. And that is a delight.

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