2010 Bookseller Resource Guide
Book Reviews
Benjamin Franklin
Writer and Printer
By James N. Green and Peter Stallybrass
Oak Knoll Press, Library Company of Philadelphia, and the British Library, 2006
179 pages
Hard back: ISBN: 1584561874 Price: $49.95
Franklin sometimes went to great lengths to obscure his authorship, using anonymous and pseudonymous essays to argue several sides of an issue, which also enabled him to sell more pamphlets and newspapers. Good business was never far from his mind.
It is too often the case that scholars and librarians do not talk to one another, let alone collaborate. Happily, Benjamin Franklin: Writer and Printer is an exception. Originally conceived as an exhibition catalog, this work sets a new standard for that category. James Green, librarian of the Library Company of Philadelphia, and Peter Stallybrass, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, weave a detailed exposition of Franklin’s work as a writer and a printer around 150 full-color images of books, engravings, and manuscripts. Green and Stallybrass bring complementary areas of expertise together, which have lent more breadth and depth of scope to the book than either could have produced individually. Green is a bibliographical scholar who works on publishing history in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century North America. Stallybrass studies the literature and material culture of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Britain and Europe. The result is a balanced mix of bibliographical fact presented within convincing theoretical frameworks. The authors show Franklin’s training as a printer required him both to edit and to create copy. They portray the young Ben Franklin, just sixteen years old, writing essays as “Silence Dogood,” an old widow with three children who claimed to live in the country. Franklin slipped essays he wrote under the door to his older brother’s printing shop, beginning a practice of invented authorship that he would use all his life. At the time, it was standard practice to write under pseudonyms to avoid persecution by the authorities—especially if the author wanted to critique their policies. Franklin sometimes went to great lengths to obscure his authorship, using anonymous and pseudonymous essays to argue several sides of an issue, which also enabled him to sell more pamphlets and newspapers. Good business was never far from his mind. These anecdotes are illustrated with full-color images of the printed articles and even a few surviving manuscripts. Green and Stallybrass present a persuasive argument that, to Franklin, “ideas were a common treasury to be shared by all,” and that in one sense, intellectual property was immoral, because ?it raised fences that “preserved knowledge for the rich and powerful and prevented its free circulation.” Franklin used his profound common sense and applied a level of industry—what we now refer to as “sweat equity”—to the problems and practices of the printing house, quickly rising from apprentice, to journeyman, to press owner. Franklin’s skill as a printer is frequently demonstrated in this book through side-by-side comparisons of his work and those of his contemporaries. And the authors explore his entrepreneurial sense, giving examples of the blank forms, handbills, lottery tickets, and even paper money that he printed—jobs that provided Franklin with a dependable source of ready money. The second half of the book considers Franklin’s book publishing, his political pamphleteering, and the success of the Poor Richard almanacs. This is history of the book at its best. Green and Stallybrass unpack the complex production histories of these texts while also continually connecting their findings within larger historical and literary contexts. The last chapter, on Franklin’s Autobiography, is particularly impressive. The original manuscript of that American classic was written in four parts, from 1771 to 1790, in England, France, and Philadelphia. (It now resides in the Huntington Library, which acquired it as part of the library of E. D. Church in 1911.) No editions were printed in Franklin’s lifetime, and none of the editions of Franklin’s memoir that were printed before J. A. Leo Lemay and P. M. Zall’s definitive 1981 edition were directly based on the original manuscript. Those who teach or edit the works of Franklin, or want to see what his books and newspapers looked like, will find Benjamin Franklin: Writer and Printer a very handy book. It is also a model of collaboration for librarians and scholars to follow. The only criticism I have is that it lacks a bibliography. Scores of references are cited in the footnotes (bibliographies, original and edited editions, scholarly monographs and articles, etc.), but it would be useful to have a select bibliography for quick reference and further reading.