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A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and…
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A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America

by Stacy Schiff

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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50. A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America (Audio) by Stacy Schiff, read by Susan Denaker (2005, 21 hours 57 minutes, 512 pages in text form, Listened August 4 - September 2)

A long audio book, I kind of let this run along in the background, while being careful not to think about other audio books I might want to read next. I could enjoy it as long as I didn't ask too much in any one sitting. That being said, it's a pretty major work.

Benjamin Franklin spent nine years in Paris as a US Ambassador during and after the US War Revolutionary War. I always saw that as a footnote, but his roll was fundamental to the success of the war. It was French aid that allowed the US to separate from Britain, and it was French political decisions that allowed the US to then immediately become an independent entity without foreign ties. And yet, poor France not only never benefited from US independence, but spent so much on it, that this specific debt would play a key roll in the fall of the Bourbon monarchy and the beginning of the French revolution. Franklin was in center of this aide. Not only was he key to getting this kind of non-interfering French help, but he was one of very few, maybe the only one who could pull it off so well.

But the book is not so much a history of events as it is an effort to spend a lot of time with Ben Franklin, see what it was like to be him, see how he acted, what he was like in his many different relationships, see how he worked and thought and how he handled the various challenges that came his way. How he dealt with developed his relationship with the key French minister, Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes, and how he handled the various British ministers in Paris with their varying personalities.

This was an old Franklin with serious health problems that would only get worse. He was 70 years old when he arrived in Paris, and he brought along (illegitimate) grandsons. And he arrived as a hero. France went crazy over him, celebrated him as the celebrated their own Voltaire, to the point that Franklin had little privacy.

And there were many different Franklins. There was the playful one that flirted in with married woman, goaded those about him. The ever curious one involved in all sort of scientific endeavors, including a famous expose of Franz Mesmer (who gave us the word mesmerizing). There was the theatre going the Franklin, and the frugal one who limited his expenses, and the very hard working one. There was the distant and not at all warm family man, who chastised at length any of his children's or grandchildren's interests in anything not frugally responsible, and yet who, by necessity, offered associates children anything they might request. And there was simply brilliant and energetic famous Franklin who published newspapers, dashed off inventions, started postal and fire services. And then there was the foreign statesman, and here truly was a different Franklin, one who used all his strengths and charms, one who built relationships, balanced methodologies, worked in many different ways at the same time, who mastered the art of never committing to anything, one with common sense, and one who brought with him a wealth of well-rounded wisdom. It's quite amazing how it all came together so well - how he was such an elegant master of diplomacy.

There are a lot odds and ends I could mention here. There was French-American culture clash, where the royalty obsessed French valued honor, but had to learn that the greatest compliment they could give to an American was that he was sensible. Americans simply didn't get the French. Sam Addams' not so helpful diplomatic efforts stand out. Brilliant in many ways, rightly suspicious of France, he was an open book, and diplomatic disaster who went straight after everything and openly wore his disdain for the needed French on his sleeve. He couldn't stand, and never got, Franklin's inability to commit to anything. His hatred of Franklin only subsided when Franklin's health deteriorated. Adams comes across as a buffoon - and he was one of the better diplomats. Thomas Jefferson later did get Franklin. After Franklin left, King Louis XVI, in a question, asked if Jefferson was Franklin's replacement. Jefferson replied that no one could replace Franklin, and he was merely Franklin's successor. Adams could never have managed to say that.

And there is Franklin's legacy. His American legacy is mixed, at best. An American hero, yet he has been butchered by American intelligentsia as unsophisticated, inelegant, practical, and distant. He returned from Paris to become elected to the equivalent of governor of Pennsylvania, but Congress would never pay him his expenses from Paris. His contemporaries never came to terms with Franklin's nine years away. Yet, in France Franklin arrived a hero and left an even bigger hero, praised by the many great French thinkers throughout history.

My complaint with this book would be the length and lack of movement. Trying to get the most out of every moment, Schiff slowly drags through the years, and in audio it reads even slower. For someone looking to fall in love with Franklin, this would be a nice place to spend time. I found it enjoyable, but felt a constant itch to have things move along a bit. ( )
2 vote dchaikin | Sep 3, 2014 |
An engrossing and informative account that goes far beyond common knowledge of the French involvement in the American Revolution and shows additonal sides of important founding fathers. ( )
  Unreachableshelf | Jun 18, 2011 |
Interesting what different positions my previous LT reviewers took on this book. It is of course hardly a full blown biography of Franklin, but one that focuses on his French experience. I would judge it competent. ( )
1 vote carterchristian1 | Sep 3, 2010 |
- In support of the American Revolution, Franklin most significant contribution came as ambassador to France and this book concentrates on Franklins 9 years in France (1776 - 1785)
- Franklin was 70 year old and spoke little French when he arrived, yet his diplomatic efforts were often brilliant…the American Colonies needed money, munitions, gunpowder and recognition/support from France and Franklin was able to deliver
- Joseph Ellis is spot on when he stated “she (Schiff) is generally regarded as one of the most gifted storytellers writing today” and what makes this book so outstanding is this book reads like a novel with swindles, vendettas, a cast of colorful characters, and humor”
- Stacy Schiff is author of Vera (Mrs Vladimir Nabokov) which won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 2000 ( )
  CritEER | Aug 23, 2007 |
Only because I have the utmost respect for and interest in what Franklin did in Paris did I finish this book.
The prose in this book is so contorted, and the actual information content so weak, that I had to work to finish it. Had I known how little reward would be forthcoming for the effort, I'd never have started.
I'm an avid reader of history, and I bought this book because I'd seen some good reviews for it, but I doubt that I'll ever buy another of Ms. Schiff's works again. ( )
  tburghart | Dec 4, 2006 |
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Stacy Schiffprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Denaker, SusanNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0805066330, Hardcover)

Benjamin Franklin began the "the most taxing assignment of his life" at the age of 70: to secure the aid of the French monarchy in helping the fledgling United States establish their republic. The job required tremendous skill, finesse, and discretion, and as Stacy Schiff makes clear in this brilliant book, Franklin was the ideal American, perhaps the only one, to take on the task, due in large part to his considerable personal prestige. One of the most famous men in the world when he landed in France in December 1776, his arrival caused a sensation--he was celebrated as a man of genius, a successor to Newton and Galileo, and treated as a great dignitary, even though the nation he represented was less than a year old and there were many doubts as to whether it would see its second birthday. Though he had no formal diplomatic training and spoke only rudimentary French, Franklin managed to engineer the Franco-American alliance of 1778 and the peace treaty of 1783, effectively inventing American foreign policy as he went along, in addition to serving as chief diplomat, banker, and director of American naval affairs.

Franklin recognized and accepted the fact that French aid was crucial to American independence, but some Founding Fathers resented him for making America dependent on a foreign power and severely attacked him for securing the very aid that saved the cause. Schiff offers fascinating coverage of this American infighting, along with the complex political intrigue in France, complete with British spies and French double agents, secret negotiations and backroom deals. A Great Improvisation is an entertaining and illuminating portrait of Franklin's seven-year adventure in France that "stands not only as his greatest service to his country but the most revealing of the man." --Shawn Carkonen

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:58:16 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Schiff tells how Benjamin Franklin--seventy years old, without any diplomatic training, and possessed of the most rudimentary French--convinced France, an absolute monarchy, to underwrite America's experiment in democracy. When Franklin stepped onto French soil, he well understood he was embarking on the greatest gamble of his career. By virtue of fame, charisma, and ingenuity, he outmaneuvered British spies, French informers, and hostile colleagues; engineered the Franco-American alliance of 1778; and helped to negotiate the peace of 1783. From these pages emerge a particularly human and yet fiercely determined Founding Father, as well as a profound sense of how fragile, improvisational, and international was our country's bid for independence.… (more)

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