Hag me no Hagiography

Hagiography raises a lot of interesting issues.

Waldstreicher falls into a long line of historians who see the other side of Franklin. The wiry, sardonic 39-year-old author is not a fan of rah-rah Franklin books, especially given his view that “Franklin’s anti-slavery credentials have been greatly exaggerated.” He regards Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin: An American Life as “a good read” with “insightful moments,” but sees Isaacson as “already on the stump, talking about why we should find Franklin inspiring, why he’s better, why he’s neither too far left nor too far right, why he’s so reasonable. It’s been disturbing to see it called the standard biography now,” Waldstreicher says, because “it doesn’t build on any of the scholarship in early American history.”

Rah-rah books about almost anything (except food, perhaps) are suspect enterprises. Perhaps because they start from the desire to say ‘rah-rah’ and then collect the appropriate evidence, rather than starting from the desire to tell the truth and then collecting whatever evidence there is.

The Constitution Center’s exhibition reflects a wave of hagiography in Franklin biography that pooh-poohs criticism of the so-called First American…It marginalizes such longtime lightning rods for Franklin critics as his slave-trade activities, womanizing, hardball politics, and spinmeister shaping of his own image. Waldstreicher’s critique thus comes at a welcome time. It steers attention from the mind-numbing “Benergy” campaign, and lopsided biographies of Franklin that make him a safe adoptable symbol and hero, to a countertradition.

‘Benergy’? Oh, yuk. Oh gawdelpus. And save us all from safe adoptable symbols and heroes. Heroes are okay up to a point, but they can’t be canonized or sanitized – ‘enskied and sainted,’ as Lucio puts it in ‘Measure for Measure’. None of that. That can’t be done without lying; away with it.

Indeed, a voyage through Franklin biographies suggests a near-natural law: The more commercial the project, the more celebratory the tone. The more academic the project, the more evenhanded the view. In Recovering Benjamin Franklin (1999), for instance. philosopher James Campbell flatly finds “much in Franklin’s mindset that is unattractive.”

There’s the real issue. The more commercial, the more celebratory; the more academic, the more analytic or skeptical. So – be skeptical of best-selling biographies.

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