What are the best books on the ever-fascinating founder Benjamin Franklin? As I have been writing a religious biography of Franklin for Yale University Press, I have been getting to know the vast literature on Franklin. Here are my suggestions for where to start.
1) The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. A no-brainer, as this eminently readable memoir is an unquestionable part of the American literary canon. I suggest the Yale edition, which is produced by the Papers of Benjamin Franklin project, but any version of the text will do.
2) The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, by Gordon Wood. Wood, one of our generation’s greatest historians, is able to separate the man from the myth and place Franklin in his eighteenth-century world.
3) Carl Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin. Still arguably the definitive and most readable of all Franklin biographies, Van Doren won the 1938 Pulitzer Prize for this book. It is an important predecessor to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Franklin – also eminently readable – which I might suggest as a bonus sixth addition to this list.4) Jill Lepore, Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin. A stirring account of the much lesser-known life of Franklin’s sister Jane, an impoverished evangelical Christian who exercised great influence on Franklin, even though he neglected to mention her in the Autobiography.
5) J.A. Leo Lemay, The Life of Benjamin Franklin. 3 vols. The place to start for research on Franklin, this is the definitive biography of Franklin’s life through 1757. Lemay sadly died before finishing what was supposed to be a monumental seven-volume project.
What would you add or subtract from the list?
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