- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 1, 2008

Take it from me it is extremely hard to write biography that is both accessible to young readers and substantial enough for older ones. To try to put historical characters in a modern context borders on the impossible.

The case of Hendrik Van Loon, the Dutch-American historian is instructive. He won the first Newberry Medal for children’s literature in 1922 for his History of Mankind which made no reference to Biblical creationism whatsoever. But my own favorite came 20 years later when, in “Van Loon’s Lives,” he hosts a series of fictional dinners with such diverse guests (and fitting menus) as Queen Elizabeth I and the Empress Theodora of Byzantium, or Napoleon and Van Loon’s grandfather who had fought in Russia in 1812 for the Emperor, and Ludwig van Beethoven, whose overture captured the enormity of that disaster. I was especially charmed by his Christmas party where Benjamin Franklin joined the Lost Children of History - Virginia Dare, the Dauphin, the Two Princes in the Tower, the Children from the Crusade - in a bittersweet frolic.

(Diane Publishing Co., $24.95, 320 pages), by California physician and educator Stuart Green, fits the bill nicely. It is an excellent way to introduce first-time serious readers to the kaleidoscopic life of Benjamin Franklin, but it also goes beyond the dates and events and puts Franklin into the context of both his time and ours. This gives older readers who already know the basic outline a broader framework for this fascinating Founding Father.

As with Van Loon, Dr. Green starts us off with a nicely imaginative conceit that is, in fact, based on some truth. Among Franklin’s many life-long enquiries was the preservation of life, indeed, the nature of life itself. Particularly toward the end of his quite long 84 years he wistfully wished for a longer life just so he could see how the great American Experiment turned out.

In a letter to one of his closest friends, the French philosopher and scientist Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg, Franklin reported, “I have seen an instance of common flies … drown’d in Madeira wine … Having heard it remark’d that drowned flies were capable of being reviv’d by the rays of the sun, I proposed making the experiment upon these; they were therefore expos’d to the sun … in less than three hours, two of them began by degrees to recover life … and soon after began to fly … .”

He added,” I wish it were possible to invent a method of embalming drown’d persons, in such a manner that they may be recall’d to life at any period, however distant. For having a very ardent desire to see and observe the state of America a hundred years hence, I should prefer any ordinary death, being immers’d in a cask of Madeira wine”to be later recall’d to life by the solar warmth of my dear country!”

So the fiction Dr. Green concocts is that Franklin did exactly that. As he perceived death approaching he prevailed on his doctor and Benjamin Franklin Bache, his grandson, to inter him in a cask of Madeira and bury him in a hidden location. For the public funeral, which drew an enormous crowd of 20,000 mourners, the conspirators stole an unidentified corpse from the Pennsylvania Hospital for the burial in the Christ Church graveyard. Franklin’s cask went into an unmarked grave known only to the plotters.

What with all the construction going on in modern downtown Philadelphia, it was just a manner of time before Franklin’s cask was discovered and modern medicine brought to bear to revive the 300-plus-year-old Founding Father. While Franklin is recuperating, Dr. Green begins a correspondence via—what else? —email which the old printer quickly becomes adept at downloading.

The theme of what follows is to select each of the singular accomplishments or discoveries Franklin made during his first life and bring him up to date on what modern science and technology has made in the way of improvements, expansions, and corrections.

For those of us who think this modern age is too obsessed with matters of health and personal fitness, Dr. Green’s updating to Franklin remind us that those topics were of even more vital interest 300 years ago because disease, pain and death were omnipresent. Franklin well into mature adulthood was a fearsomely strong, vital man who was a champion swimmer, perhaps second only to Washington as a horseman, and no man to mess with in the periodic brawls that printers enjoyed. Yet he was plagued with urinary tract stones, debilitating bouts of gout, chronic episodes of malaria fevers, and various dermatological itches, scabs and flaking that sent him after the same remedies, baths, and unguents that humankind experimented with in that century—all with indifferent results. His fondness for Madeira did not help matters.

Franklin was on firmer ground with other, more observable science as Dr. Green notes his charting of the first accurate map of the Gulf Stream was a major contribution to trans-Atlantic travel just as his inventions of bifocal eye-glass lenses and of his re-circulating stove was based on principles that are still recognized today.

But still, Franklin could go astray such as when he tried to use electrical shocks to cure paralysis and depression. Note we are not talking about electro-shock therapy here but real zapping with a generator. And he miscalculated how improved fuel efficiency could make the earliest experiments with steam propelled boats into a commercial success.

Yet what comes through loud and clear is how Franklin and his mind are still very much connecting with our times and the way we look at the world. Dr. Green’s book is breezily written, informative, and as I said, accessible to readers of all ages.

***

One would think then that (Oxford University Press, $21.95, 224 pages)would be equally germane reading. Especially since the author, Mark McNeilly, is billed as a long time IBM marketing executive and the author of two books on business and strategic principles and the writings of the ancient Chinese tactician Sun Tzu.

One would think so. And one would be wrong. An early warning might come from the thought that if one wanted to know what Sun Tzu taught on various topics one would be well advised to buy one of the many reprints of his teachings. Yet one of the hardy staples of publishing is to take a famed historical figure - Lincoln, Eisenhower, Napoleon, or Mussolini—and draw from their lives tips on how to be a better salesman, account executive, or fast-food purveyor. So why not Washington?

Well he was a businessman, that’s true enough. In addition to being a land surveyor, field marshal, president, and icon, Washington was a successful marketer of fish from the Potomac, an experimenter in various crops and hybrids and the manufacturer and distributor of a potent and much favored peach brandy from a distillery that has just been reconstructed and put into operation at the Mount Vernon museum.

Instead of analyzing how Washington put his leadership and organizational skills to work, say in turning the rag-tag militias into a first-class Continental Army, Mr. McNeilly serves us up a Cliff Notes history of his life that is vague on details.

We learn that Washington intentionally set out to build his personal courage and self-discipline but there is no real analysis of what it meant for 16-year-old George to copy out the well-known Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation as a moral guide or how those rules might help a young business executive on the make today.

At the end of chapters Mr. McNeilly will summarize about how Washington “persevered” and how “using his organizational skills and ability to promote the Cause” he was able to keep his troops in the field, but no hints about how that translates into today’s office struggles for success.

This book would not even have helped George Washington become George Washington and it won’t help you.


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