When Benjamin Franklin Became Big Ben in my Life
It was the summer of 1975. I was a National Scholar from Cornell on a Lane Cooper scholarship in London to study Shakespeare. The scholarship covered enough to have me in residence with the great literary historian Garreth Lloyd Evans; and this gifted living stipend — as I was still dirt poor then — also brought me and my many skilled young classmates to Stratford Upon Avon. I remember each step when we visited the man’s actual thatched house, or I should recall, his wife’s actual house, the house of Ann Hathaway. This I said to myself is “where the great Anglo-american verbal nexus began.”
All this “gift-ness” gave me gratitude, yet even in this retrospect of many decades, it remains such a surprise; I had not even dreamt about such a deal as possible when I was a competitive basketball player. It simply fell on my lap, without application, from the wealth of support from Cornell.
Who the hell is Lane Cooper anyway?
I finally thank his estate through this reflection.
True enough, my high school teacher Charles Plummer had given me “The Autobiography of Ben Franklin” the year before, but now I was experiencing Franklin’s impact on Europe first-hand, at age 20 years prime!
THE OTHER SIDE OF A COIN
The generous scholarship did not have enough in it to cover extra time away from William Shakespeare. Being frugal, I saved my pennies to stay an extra couple of weeks to experience British theater and acting first-hand. I took a “worker’s group room”, that fine summer, near the Parliament and BIG BEN, the Tower that stood in honor of Ben Franklin and his European shadow.
The men slept in their working clothes, saturated in the day’s sweat.
I was paranoid with the workers each night, and I slept clutching my passport to my chest, and luckily, too: One morning I was stunned to see the Bobbies, a word for British police officers, asking me tough questions, as I was the only one in the room of 30 workers not robbed that mid-night! Even in youth, I learned to protect the little I had with me, being a street kid in a sense now on the up and up. Despite my American accent, the Bobbies came to see my pass to the theater from the “Royal Shakespeare & Company” and they stopped the cross examination. My T-shirt was as sweaty as a construction worker’s shirt at that point.
Anyway, this was my first experience of downtown London and the shadow of Ben Franklin.
A LIFETIME OF READING ALL THINGS BRITISH AND FRANKLIN
Today, I read everything I can get my hand on regarding my first influence Ben Franklin — including teaching his Autobiography each year I taught at Clarkson College in the frigid North of New York after my dissertation.
These last two years I cherished each page of Walter Isaacson’s lengthy Folio edition of BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, with an introduction by NO ONE, quite rare for Folio editions. But at 500 pages, with abundantly well written footnotes, and a complete index, I can see why they refused their formula of success and only give you Isaacson, with no scholarly introduction. I pursue every lead Isaacson provides in this book across more than 25 months now.
I have noted before that Isaacson favors the character of Franklin, his belief in science and diplomacy, and neglects his originating genius in competitive frugality. Here are some of the characteristics of Franklin that I feel accurate from Isaacson’s renown biography:
- On page 17 he notes: “One aspect of Franklin’s genius was the variety of his interests, from science to government to diplomacy to journalism, all of them approached from a very practical rather than theoretical angle. Had he gone to Harvard, this diversity in outlook need not have been lost.” Yet it might have! Franklin’s journey is one of ceaseless self-education and self-governance, not elite schooling. And that was the key to me. Harvard at the time, like total, made more intelligent sheep than roamers like Franklin and myself.
- On 21, Isaacson concludes aptly, showing us how Big Ben results from the collision of Puritanism and the Enlightenment thinking of John Locke, saying: “books were the most important formative influence in his life, and he was lucky to grow up in Boston, where libraries had been carefully nurtured since the Arabella brought fifty volumes long with the town’s first settlers in 1630. By the time Franklin was born, Cotton Mather had built a private library of almost three thousand volumes rich in classical and scientific as well as theological works.” When my wife and I left Cornell and Ithaca, I had to sell over 3000 books (mostly cheap paperbacks to DeWitt Mall collections) in order to fit into our first small couple’s apartment.
How does all this relate to you, young and mature writers and readers?
Time to reread the first 90 pages of Franklin’s own account of his beginnings in The Autobiography.
Big Ben’s own account is far more “witty” than the sententious Governor Cotton Mather, and far more “clever” and “pragmatic” than any European like Locke on property and good government.
I argued when I taught his Autobiography for a decade at my first professional job in Clarkson that there were three fuels that fed Franklin’s originating engine: Wit, Situational Cleverness (the birth of management savvy and political aspiration) and Pragmatic.
It was the high-octane fuel of pragmatism that led to Walt Whitman, William James, the American Renaissance thinkers, and then to Tom Wolfe in his Bonfire of Vanities. Do you agree with me? Can you see the American strain runs straight from Franklin to Wolfe. It is a straight fun line full of wit, personal narrative, and the American way of pragmatism in the world.
Having now written two books as my homage to Ben Franklin, I speak with many on the road in foreign countries about the long shadow of Benjamin from Istanbul and Belfast to Canton, China and the States.
In every case, people see Ben Franklin as “Big Ben,” a unique “character” who still resides in the blood of modern people.
IN THE SHADOW OF BEN FRANKLIN
Many months, I remember the good fortune of staying in that worker’s camp, beneath the long shadow of Big Ben in London.
The best way to sum it up is to contrast Franklin to the insanities of Putin and Trump. And here is a concise way to do it.
Franklin has character; they — the mad invading Putin and the disgraced Trump — have evident trauma discoloring their ceaseless personal ambitions.
In his new book Emotional, Dr. Leonard Mlodinow sums up this piece for me on his page 157, about mid-way thru Emotional.
“Every person is unique,’ Gregory Cohen notes, “Physically and intellectually, but also emotionally.” Cohen is a psychiatrist in the Los Angeles area. He is a tall, earnest fellow with sympathetic eyes and a quiet voice that rises in passion as he speaks of his work.
“We each have a different pattern of emotional reactivity. We all have the same emotional toolbox, but the tools within it may work a bit differently, depending on the person, as with all psychological traits. Sometimes, due to a quirk, or a result of a person’s past, that toolbox does not serve us well. I spend my days helping those whose patterns of emotion get in the way.”
The above passage sums up concisely what is wrong with Putin and Trump, and so right about our Big Big Ben.
The last piece of praise to Franklin that I pursued in my book “A New Way to Wealth: The Power of Doing More with Less” has to do with this emotional reserve we feel in everything Franklin.
While Putin will invade Ukraine, and Trump still thinks he has social value, Franklin knew his situation. He had great situational awareness during the troubled revolutionary times, and throughout his long adventurous life.
He fed his engine of self-actualization by the frugal use of public libraries, and then through self-invention and self-actualization, always alongside many in society. We have Ben Franklin because he was open to many different and diverse peoples on all sides of the Atlantic, and beyond.
He helped me tremendously succeed.
You can buy my latest book, A New Way to Wealth, which grows from Franklin’s classic essay “A Way to Wealth” directly from the publisher at www.doingmorewithlessbook.com. Starting this March 22, you can also buy it through the convenience of Amazon with my other books, but to be like Ben, please note the Amazon royalty I get is less than a fourth of what you get at the click above. Enjoy.