Sunday, December 18, 2005

Ben Franklin Bio Review

The Washington Times

Benjamin Franklin

Published December 18, 2005

By J. A. Leo Lemay
University of Pennsylvania, $39.95, 568 pages, illlus.

By J. A. Leo Lemay
University of Pennsylvania, $39.95, 664 pages, illus.

Now we embark on a prolonged celebration of the 300th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Franklin. In mid-December the official Tercentenary Commission's traveling interactive museum show opens in Philadelphia and then moves on for an international tour that will last through 2008. A cavalry charge of biographies (mine included) floods the bookstores and one presumes public television will drown us in Ben -- 24-seven.
Yet, the most important event in this overdue examination of the man who made our American Revolution possible is that the first two volumes of a projected seven-volume biography, "The Life of Benjamin Franklin," have been released by the University of Pennsylvania Press and a third volume is slated to go to the editors in January. If you have enjoyed the popular Founding Father and Mother biographies of David McCullough, Joseph Ellis, Edward Morgan and others, this is where you can start feeding your interest in earnest.
The series author is J. A. Leo Lemay, a University of Delaware professor and the doyen of Franklin scholars. It is not too much to say that this literary journey through the bewildering hall of mirrors of Franklin's personality will solidify his sometimes underrated reputation as the first among equals among our national legends. As a series, Mr. Lemay's final output will do for the popular interest in our revolution and early founding what Douglas Southall Freeman's magisterial "Lee's Lieutenants" did for our fixation on the Civil War.
There is a difference between the two series and it is to Mr. Lemay's, and your, advantage. Freeman's multi-volume history, first published in 1942, told the stories of the main generals of the Confederacy by laying out elegantly written after-action reports of the important battles of that struggle. Even to sustain one's way through the subsequently shortened three-volume version published in the 1990s, you have to be a real groupie of the Lost Cause.
A more apt comparison might be to the previous gold standard of Franklin biographies, Carl Van Doren's 1938 biography which won the Pulitzer Prize and remained until now the first book a student of Franklin was advised to read. The difference is hardly discreditable to Van Doren whose research predated by 20 years the start of a systematic effort to collect and study the huge mass of documents Franklin generated during his life.
Yet as good as he was, Van Doren's nearly 800-page doorstopper is often thrown off stride by the sheer breadth of Franklin's personality, of his activities, of the contradictions in what the author called "this harmonious human multitude" of a man.
Just to get his arms around Franklin he would have to interrupt the flow of chapters to drag the reader back to some important insight or event that could not be included in previous pages. And that was just to deal with Franklin himself.
This is a good place to address the question that any reader of this review must be asking about now. Why on earth would anyone commit to buying (let alone reading) seven volumes at 40 bucks a pop about anyone?
As one of my early editors used to ask me, "The story of the Creation takes only 800 words, does your story deserve more?" The answer, happily, is yes. Mr. Lemay, who writes every bit as well as Freeman and better than Van Doren, tells more than the story of an important historical figure. In a seamless narrative Franklin is portrayed against the background of the life and times of other American colonials.
For those who view America's move toward nationhood as inevitability, Mr. Lemay has an important story to tell. With authority he charts how rapidly these at first exclusively English colonies underwent changes that transformed them into a new being and how violent and problematic that change was. Mirroring that upheaval, Franklin evolved too with the same bewildering rapidity and visible conflicts.
The story begins with Boston as it was just before Franklin's birth in 1706. A village of around 8,000 encircling an accessible deep-water port, Boston was the most important town in British North America and was destined to become the second most important city of the Empire next to London itself. It was to this shining city that Josiah Franklin and his young family came in 1693, to seek his fortune as a silk dyer and to follow his religious beliefs among the like minded Puritans who had run the Massachusetts Bay Colony for 70 years.
That Boston did not become our eventual capital is part of the story Mr. Lemay tells. Even at that early date the political, economic and cultural unity of these early colonies was fracturing along familiar lines of wealth, class, faith, new citizens versus old and, not least, a growing estrangement from the ties that bound them to Mother England.
Franklin was in the thick of things from his early teens until his death in 1790 at the age of 84. First be warned. This is not the Benjamin Franklin you are used to. Mr. Lemay's Franklin is not the twinkly, portly old gent in the bifocals who appears in television commercials hawking banks and brake linings. The Franklin who emerges in these opening chapters is remarkably strong and robust. He has a high opinion of himself and as a youth was a happy warrior in the fist-fights and rowdy behavior that apprentices of the times engaged in.
Young Ben was something of a brat and you feel some sympathy for his half-brother printer James Franklin, who often was driven to beat his bumptious sibling. Yet this is a Franklin who is on fire to succeed, to advance himself from his modest (but hardly poor) beginnings. Thus he early on begins to work on one of his great inventions, himself.
Volume One takes Franklin from his birth on January 17, 1706 to his marriage at common law to his much loved (but unfortunately still legally married) Deborah in Philadelphia in 1730. The evolution of young Ben from the spoiled, querulous renegade he admits (in his "Autobiography") to being into the knowledge-famished young printer on the make is an adventure story in itself. Put simply, Ben's noisy regard of himself and his skepticism of religion and authority had made him unwelcome in Boston. Yet the brat had become something of a prodigy, in large part by a prodigious campaign of self-education.
By the time Ben runs away from James Franklin's print shop and newspaper when he is 17, he is, by Mr. Lemay's account, already the best writer in the American colonies and a skilled printer to boot. Once in Philadelphia, the credulous lad is gulled into a trip to London that allows him to perfect his printing skills and mature a bit.
Franklin's return to Philadelphia, his purchase of his own newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, and his marriage set the young man on the path he will follow into Volume Two and his evolution as the rising craftsman and promoter of civic improvements upon which his reputation is founded. Here Mr. Lemay sets out Franklin's life long struggle to curb his various passions -- his temper, frivolity and, of course, his sensuality -- and channel his inexhaustible energy into a life of public involvement and personal advancement. The second installment runs through 1747 to his retirement from printing so he can devote his life to his electricity and other scientific inquiries.
This is the period of Franklin's meteoric rise from lowly leather-apron-wearing craftsman to established tradesman and political figure. With some effort, Franklin learns to restrain his pushiness and watches with satisfaction as his various schemes for a library, fire protection, an insurance company, a college and a hospital are rewarded with political advancement and personal regard. Through it all, Franklin, the writer of political argument and advocacy, attracts a growing attention throughout colonial America.
Yet, Franklin's ingrained anti-authority attitude plunges him into the conflicts that beset a Pennsylvania being changed by floods of strange new immigrants and the constant threat of war on its frontier. At first Franklin focuses his struggle on winning a measure of economic justice from the colony's grasping proprietors. Ultimately he is led into his quest for nationhood for those fractious American colonies 60 years later. Even though I already know how the story turns out, I can't wait for Mr. Lemay's next volumes.

James Srodes is a Washington author whose latest book is "Franklin: The Essential Founding Father," published by Regnery.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005


I just discovered a tool that should make publishing to this blog much easier. I was listening to NPR, a BBC editorial about how complicated computer email and word processing programs have become. Mentioned a new site called Very user friendly word processor, makes it easy to share documents for editing and easy to blog or publish. I'm writing this on, check it out. What do you think?

Monday, December 05, 2005

Walt Disney's Start & Philosophy
Obit in New York Times

After the war (Walt Disney) worked as a cartoonist for advertising agencies. But he was always looking for something better.

When Mr. Disney got a job doing cartoons for advertisements that were shown in theaters between movies, he was determined that that was to be his future. He would say to friends, "This is the most marvelous thing that has ever happened."

In 1920 he organized his own company to make cartoons about fairy tales. He made about a dozen but could not sell them. He was so determined to continue in this field that at times he had no money for food and lived with Mr. Iwerks.

In 1923 Mr. Disney decided to leave Kansas City. He went to Hollywood, where he formed a small company and did a series of film cartoons called "Alice in Cartoonland."

After two years of "Alice in Cartoonland," Mr. Disney dropped it in favor of a series about "Oswald the Rabbit." In 1928 most of his artists decided to break with him and do their own Oswald. Mr. Disney went to New York to try to keep the series but failed. When he returned, he, his wife, his brother Roy and Mr. Iwerks tried to think of a character for a new series, but failed. They decided on a mouse. Mrs. Disney named it Mickey....

One day, when Mr. Disney was approaching 60 and his black hair and neatly trimmed mustache were gray, he was asked to reduce his success to a formula. His brown eyes became alternately intense and dreamy. He fingered an ashtray as he gazed around an office so cluttered with trophies that it looked like a pawn shop.

"I guess I'm an optimist. I'm not in business to make unhappy pictures. I love comedy too much. I've always loved comedy. Another thing. Maybe it's because I can still be amazed at the wonders of the world.

"Sometimes I've tried to figure out why Mickey appealed to the whole world. Everybody's tried to figure it out. So far as I know, nobody has. He's a pretty nice fellow who never does anybody any harm, who gets into scrapes through no fault of his own, but always manages to come out grinning. Why Mickey's even been faithful to one girl, Minnie, all his life. Mickey is so simple and uncomplicated, so easy to understand that you can't help liking him."

But when Dwight D. Eisenhower was President, he found words for Mr. Disney. He called him a "genius as a creator of folklore" and said his "sympathetic attitude toward life has helped our children develop a clean and cheerful view of humanity, with all its frailties and possibilities for good."
Innovation is the lifeblood of the small-to-medium technology businesses that drive our local economy.Charles V. ZehrenNewsday, December 4, 2005

But owners and managers of such concerns often lose sight of that fundamental truth. They fall into the trap of focusing on perpetuating financial results, winning the next contract or shoving another order out the door instead of meeting customer expectations.

To retain and hone the competitive edge that enabled them to survive and prosper in the first place, companies must resist the urge to cut costs and spend time and money on developing, implementing, maintaining and monitoring a concrete plan that promotes innovation.

That's according to David Wilemon, a professor of Innovation Management and Entrepreneurship at the Martin J. Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University. Wilemon has advised a slew of corporations and organizations, including Apple, General Electric and NASA.

In a recent interview, e-mail exchanges and an article in Whitman's Fall 2005 magazine, Wilemon said that to triumph over today's brutal economic realities, business operators must create a clear, useful process for allowing innovation to flourish.

Bolstering training, reorganizing or throwing more staff at product development will achieve limited results.Begin by asking yourself, does your company suffer from innovation deficit disorder?Symptoms include stagnation, a scarcity of new products or services, a lack of growth and profits, slow development cycle times, projects delivered late and over budget, conflict over innovation failures, and missed market opportunities. Check for customer dissatisfaction, low employee morale, loss of valued personnel and "systems overload."

If the answer to more than a few of these is "yes," savvy executives should then be asking themselves:What will happen to my company if we simply keep doing what we have been doing and don't innovate?What am I personally doing that gets in the way of innovation? Am I dominating meetings? Am I freezing out ideas from employees and customers?What myths am I perpetuating that block innovation and shelter us from reality? That our market will last forever? That we are the leaders in this industry? That the Chinese won't affect us?

While painful, there is a cure, Wilemon said.To begin with, consider calling a "time-out." Step to the sidelines and ask if the company is stuck in a rut doing what it has always done. Routine profits could evaporate literally overnight if you fail to innovate. "A major barrier to innovation is success," Wilemon said.

To break out of the cycle of self-perpetuation, Wilemon advocates that CEOs bring in from the outside a neutral person they trust to walk the management team through the process of creating a system to promote innovation and track the results."If bosses do it themselves, the process shuts down quickly," Wilemon said. With an outsider, "participants are less likely to create defensive routines to protect their turf.

Denial of reality is the worst enemy of a company which needs to be innovative."Another step requires going through the hard process of establishing a compelling vision of the company's future. "If you have a vision, all your decisions can be measured against it," Wilemon said. "A vision of what the company wants to become acts as a magnet for the company's energy and aspirations."

What is the dominant logic or mindset of your organization? Are you saying: Let's let our competitors develop it first? Or saying: We created this market, so we know it better than anyone?Make innovation a priority companywide. But dedicate a portion of your budget to pay for a manager who will lead a team charged with administering the innovation, product development and new market identification process.

Everyone in the company should know who is in charge of innovation. The innovation initiative should be judged by how well it teases out productive ideas. Create small project teams to shepherd the development process. Keep "small experiments" going to test new products, technologies, markets, and processes. Companies may even want to consider passing up some of the same old orders to pursue new opportunities that could pay off more in the long run, Wilemon said.Then keep asking yourself: How many ideas are shelved, and why? How many employee ideas are "pacified" - "That's a great idea guys, we'll look into it" - but you never do and no one hears from you again.

"People don't suggest ideas internally unless they get feedback, and no feedback from you is saying, 'We don't count on you much,'" Wilemon said.Use the process to determine which ideas are actually developed on their own merits or are pushed ahead because of internal office politics or bureaucratic inertia. How many ideas are partially developed, then lose momentum because something powerful pops up on the problem-solving radar screen? Are you embracing fads or actually innovating?

Without a specific plan to move forward, innovation projects get pushed aside and companies fall behind the pace of their markets. Once that happens, they have trouble catching up."The easiest path for more companies is simply to continue doing what they've been doing," Wilemon said. "Yet such actions reach their limits, which then calls for drastic actions. What companies should strive for is a continuous stream of innovation to keep it ahead of competitors."

Copyright 2005 Newsday Inc.