[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'A Great Improvisation': Our Man in Paris

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Sunday Book Review > 'A Great Improvisation': Our Man in Paris

[Washington Post Book World review appended.]


Franklin, France, and the Birth of America.
By Stacy Schiff.
Illustrated. 489 pp. Henry Holt & Company. $30.

    IN 1776, after he had helped edit Thomas Jefferson's draft of the
    Declaration of Independence, the 70-year-old Benjamin Franklin was
    sent on a wartime Atlantic crossing deemed necessary to make that
    document a reality. America had to get France on its side in the
    Revolution, and, even back then, France was a bit of a handful.

    Franklin was an ideal choice for the mission, as Stacy Schiff shows in
    this meticulously researched and judicious account of his eight years
    as a diplomatic dazzler and charmer in Paris. ''He happened to do a
    fine imitation of a French courtier,'' she writes, showing her astute
    feel for both Franklin and 18th-century court life at Versailles. ''He
    knew better than to confuse straightforwardness with candor; he was
    honest, but not too honest, which qualifies in France as a failure of
    imagination.'' What made Franklin such a great diplomat was that he
    could quote Cervantes's maxim about honesty being the best policy
    without trying to apply it in the Hall of Mirrors, where a more
    oblique approach had its advantages. He had a ''majestic suppleness''
    that was rare, especially in a man of his age.

    Today's stewards of America's foreign policy could learn much from the
    wily and seductive Franklin. He was as adroit as a Richelieu or
    Metternich at the practice of balance-of-power realism; he wrote memos
    to the French foreign minister Vergennes that showed a fine feel for
    the national interests of France and its Bourbon-pact allies; and he
    played the French off against the English envoys who came secretly
    suitoring for a back-channel truce. But he also wove in the idealism
    that was to make America's worldview exceptional both then and now; he
    realized that the appeal of the values of democracy and an attention
    to winning hearts and minds through public diplomacy would be sources
    of the new nation's global influence as much as its military might.

    After a year of playing both seductive and coy, Franklin was able to
    negotiate a set of treaties with France that would, so the signers
    declared, bond the countries in perpetuity. One French participant
    expressed the hope that the Americans ''would not inherit the
    pretensions and the greedy and bold character of their mother country,
    which had made itself detested.'' As a result of the arrangements made
    by Franklin, the French supplied most of America's guns and nearly all
    of its gunpowder, and had almost as many troops at the decisive battle
    of Yorktown as the Americans did.

    Schiff scrupulously researches the details of Franklin's mission and
    skillfully spices up the tale with the colorful spies, stock
    manipulators, war profiteers and double-dealers who swarmed around
    him. Most delightful are the British spy Paul Wentworth, so graceful
    even as he is outmaneuvered by Franklin, and the flamboyant playwright
    and secret agent Beaumarchais (''The Barber of Seville'' and ''The
    Marriage of Figaro''), so eager to capitalize on the news of the
    American victory at Saratoga that he was injured when his carriage
    overturned while speeding with a banker from Franklin's home to
    central Paris. Least delightful is the priggish and petulant John
    Adams, ''a man to whom virtue and unpopularity were synonymous'' and
    whom Schiff merrily tries to knock from the pedestal upon which he was
    placed by [1]David McCullough.

    Schiff is somewhat less successful at capturing the sweep and
    excitement of Franklin's diplomatic achievements. She never offers up
    much of a theory of how he enticed the French into an alliance, what
    role the military victory at Saratoga played, how he really felt about
    the British, what games he was playing when he juggled two rival
    British envoys vying to be his interlocutor in the final peace talks
    or why he agreed with his fellow commissioners to negotiate that
    treaty with Britain behind the backs of the French. Nor does Schiff
    convey the brilliance of his writing and the exuberance of his
    flirtations with his two mistresses. Franklin, oddly enough, sometimes
    comes across as rather distant and lifeless, which is a shame.

    In her two previous biographical studies -- [2]''Véra: (Mrs. Vladimir
    Nabokov)'' and ''Saint-Exupery'' -- Schiff displayed her mastery as a
    literary stylist. This time, she occasionally lapses into clichés (in
    one section Franklin ''dragged his feet'' and then ''led Vergennes
    down the primrose path'' from which position he ''backed them'' -- the
    Spaniards -- ''into a corner''), and some of her phrases read as if
    she wrote them first in period French (''Franklin paid a call of which
    he could not have overestimated the symbolic value''). Nevertheless,
    her research is so convincing and her feel for the subject so profound
    that ''A Great Improvisation'' becomes both an enjoyable narrative and
    the most important recent addition to original Franklin scholarship.

    When he embarked on his final voyage back home to America after his
    triumphant years in France, Franklin made a short stop in England, at
    Southampton, where he met with his illegitimate and prodigal son,
    William, who had remained loyal to the British crown. There William's
    own illegitimate son, Temple, who had sided with and worked for his
    grandfather Benjamin, tried to effect a reconciliation. Alas, the
    reunion was cold and bitter. It was a vivid reminder of how
    personality and character and emotion and diplomacy can become
    dramatically interwoven. That was one of the great themes of
    Franklin's life, one of the many that resonate today.

    Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute, is the author of
    ''Benjamin Franklin: An American Life'' and ''Kissinger: A
    Biography.'' He is writing a biography of Albert Einstein.

Charming Paris

    Reviewed by Isabelle de Courtivron
    Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page BW04

    A GREAT IMPROVISATION: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America

    By Stacy Schiff. Henry Holt. 489 pp. $30

    At the beginning of his February trip to Europe, President Bush
    quipped that he hoped for a reception similar to the one Benjamin
    Franklin received two centuries earlier, when he "arrived on this
    continent to great acclaim." (Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told
    him he "should be a realist.") This was tongue in cheek, of course --
    an attempt to smooth over the "Punish France!" pronouncements from the
    heated debate over Iraq and subsequent Francophobic actions such as
    renaming fries and dumping Beaujolais. But Bush probably did not
    realize what price Franklin had actually paid for retaining his
    extraordinary popularity in France and for surmounting political and
    personal obstacles on both sides of the Atlantic. The story of the
    eight and a half years he spent in Paris, persuading the French to
    support the fledgling American army in concrete as well as symbolic
    ways, is the subject of Stacy Schiff's engaging new book.

    A Great Improvisation has many levels. It is a factual, historical and
    meticulously detailed recounting of the travails, vexations,
    negotiations, complexities and setbacks of the political and
    diplomatic maneuvers that ultimately led France to support the young
    American cause. It is also an enlightening discussion of the vexed and
    complex beginnings of the transatlantic alliance. Finally, it is an
    entertaining story, bringing alive a cast of colorful characters,
    strange plot twists and bizarre anecdotes, which sometimes reads like
    a movie script replete with intrigues, ultimatums, cabals, swindles
    and vendettas.

    In 1776, the 70-year-old Franklin landed in France, sent by a Congress
    that had declared independence without the means to achieve it. The
    very idea of foreign help was unpalatable to some in Congress and
    considered suspect by many even after the court of young Louis XVI had
    come through. But these widely diverging opinions did not deter
    Franklin from his unwavering faith in the American Revolution and his
    steady conviction that every measure should be taken to sustain the
    new republic and win the war against the British. Franklin had the
    daunting task of advertising rebellion in an absolute monarchy; he did
    so doggedly, all the while underplaying what was often a desperate
    military situation.

    When he arrived in France, he was already well known and widely
    respected as a statesman, philosopher and scientist. But what allowed
    him to succeed when all other emissaries charged with the same task
    had fallen into the deep Franco-American political and cultural
    divide? Schiff attributes it in large part to his ability to marshal
    "a great improvisation." She points to Franklin's laissez-faire
    attitude, his ability to be logical without being encumbered by
    exaggerated honesty, his voluble, genial and ruthless approach, and
    his calculated innocence. He was also a hit with the French because he
    knew how to adapt to the codes of the European nobility -- not to
    mention possessing a heroic and seemingly unlimited patience for
    people's exasperating foibles, French, British and Americans alike.
    Indeed, as thorny as Franklin's encounters with various French
    characters may have been, they seem tame next to his relations with
    members of his own mission and with his compatriots -- from the early
    tension between the original U.S. emissaries to France, William Lee
    and Silas Deane (who fought not only over strategy but over the colors
    of the American army uniforms), all the way to the uncompromising John
    Adams (who considered every laurel bestowed upon Franklin a personal

    Marshaling so much original information -- drawn from diplomatic
    archives, family papers, spy reports and the archives of the French
    foreign service -- could have made for a tedious read were it not for
    Schiff's storytelling skills. The author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning
    biography of Vera Nabokov, Schiff introduces us to a cast of unique
    characters, whom she captures in a few vivid and incisive traits. They
    range from Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, the flamboyant,
    irrepressible, swashbuckling secret agent and playwright who became an
    important early arms dealer; to the recipient of those weapons, the
    dashing young marquis de Lafayette, who sailed to America against the
    king's order, wracked with violent seasickness, speaking not a word of
    English and leaving behind a pregnant wife; to the excitable, stubborn
    Viscount Stormont, the British ambassador to Versailles; and to the
    chevalier d'Eon, a cross-dressing dragoon officer who became a notable
    supporter of the young republic's cause.

    Schiff does not forget the ladies with whom Franklin flirted so
    copiously, in person and by correspondence: for instance, the
    thirtysomething, married Anne-Louise Brillon de Jouy, who had frail
    nerves, called him Papa and eventually promised to become his wife,
    but only in the afterlife, or Anne-Catherine Helvétius, the
    philosopher's widow, a hostess with a powerful salon who was at the
    "center of Franklin's social life" in France. They figure prominently
    in Schiff's narrative, not simply because of Franklin's fraught
    infatuations with several of them but also because, in 18th-century
    French society, their salons were the places where important people
    could meet and network. Completing this tableau are members of the
    somewhat dysfunctional Franklin family: his illegitimate son William,
    a Loyalist leader in London with whom he was on terrible terms, and
    William's own illegitimate son, Temple, who worked for his grandfather
    in Paris and whose taste for Europe left him incapable of readapting
    to America. "For his service abroad," Schiff wryly notes, Franklin
    "wound up with an English son and a French grandson."

    Schiff's allusions to the French-American misunderstandings and mutual
    suspicion will regale readers. Some of these lead to hilarious
    anecdotes; for example, Bostonians welcomed the French squadron in
    1778 with a dinner of cooked green Massachusetts frogs. The French
    militiamen found American coffee undrinkable, the food inedible, the
    people "overly familiar and bizarrely peripatetic" and the women
    graceless and unshapely; the Americans felt that the French talked too
    fast and all at the same time without really saying much, opined on
    subjects they knew nothing about and considered that business
    consisted primarily of ceremony and pleasure. Despite the undeniable
    impact on U.S.-French relations of two tumultuous centuries, A Great
    Improvisation reminds us that profound cultural differences between
    the two societies have not changed all that much -- and thus remain at
    the root of their conflicting visions of the world. Plus ça change . .
    . o

    Isabelle de Courtivron is Friedlaender Professor of the Humanities at
    MIT and the editor of "Lives in Translation: Bilingual Writers on
    Identity and Creativity."

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