The Patriot Resource - American Revolution

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A Great Improvisation
A Great Improvisation:
Franklin, France, and the Birth of America

by Stacy Schiff
Published by Henry Holt & Co.
April 2005

Available in:
Hardcover (Large Print)
Audio CD (Unabridged; from Books On Tape)
Audio CD (Abridged; from Random House Audio)
Audio Cassette (Abridged; from Random House Audio)

Book Review from The Patriot Resource:
A Great Improvisation gives a unique perspective of the American Revolution by way of Benjamin Franklin's perspective while he resided in France. The book begins with Franklin's arrival in France in December 1776 and continues until 1785 when Franklin finally sailed back to the new nation of America. In between, author Stacy Schiff chronicles the actions (and inactions) of Benjamin Franklin and the American envoys in France from politics to science to personal affairs.

The book almost immediately takes on a chaotic style, jumping from topic to topic in a juggling act that mirrored Benjamin Franklin's handling of matters in France. Unlike Franklin, who occasionally let individual matters (such as various personality conflicts between the American envoys themselves) get out of control, author Stacy Schiff maintains a coherent narrative in the midst of the chaos. Somewhere near the midpoint of the book, either because the reader grows accustomed to the style or because in the narrative, the fighting in America is all but over, the narrative seems to settle into a much more linear mode.

The book's strongest antagonist is not British, but John Adams, who only mellows as he sees that Franklin is dying although his vitriol returns after Franklin's passing. Almost all the characters, including Franklin, are painted by Schiff in shades of gray, which in this case makes nearly every one of the supporting characters interesting, but unfinished portraits to be pursued in additional reading since this book is about Franklin. This dynamic brings a vitality to the narrative where Franklin's silence or inactivity would otherwise slow the pace.

Schiff clearly demonstrates that Franklin accomplished much and yet seemingly often did little more than let his celebrity in France motivate so many others to action in support of America's quest. In doing so, he presented many contradictions to America's arguments for independence. In his station in Europe, he made use of the trappings of government there, which opened him to attack by his opponents back in America who accused him of undermining the fledgling nation's newly defined principles. Needless to say, Franklin was more at home in Europe than in his own country.

A Great Improvisation is a facinating read, if a bit dizzying at its beginning. If one is looking for a unique perspective of the American Revolution as seen from Europe and French society, this book is highly recommended. Though the effort to help secure America's independence is a major theme, French society and Franklin's personal life there are of equal interest in this book. It is an interesting argument that Franklin not only was a major force in the American Revolution, but the French Revolution as well.

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