Thursday, April 13, 2006

Silence Dogood Would Understand

1706.
  • A council of officials of uncertain importance decided that since Emperor Iyasus of Ethiopia had retired to a monastery, they could appoint Tekle Haymanot I to be the Emperor.
  • Over in Ramillies, the War of the Spanish succession had English, Dutch, and German troops defeating the French. They'd mix themselves up and fight one another in one form or fashion for 250 years or so.
  • George Farquar had gotten over stabbing another actor during a swordfight, and was wowing them on Drury Lane with his play: The Recruiting Officer. 
  • John Machin the mathemetician was getting a little notoriety for computing pi to 100 decimal places.
And in Boston, Massachusetts, Josiah Franklin wiped the tallow renderings from his soap and candle manufactory off his hands, and held his newborn son - his tenth: Benjamin.

He'd have seven more children, too. But it's Ben Franklin we all remember, because he's the most American man that ever lived.

Franklin did every damn thing, and did it well. He wasn't educated formally much -- his father only had enough money for one year at Boston Latin --but Ben became an autodidact, and read voraciously. When Benjamin was fifteen, his older brother James started the first newspaper in Boston, the Courant. Ben was forced to do menial work only; setting type, sweeping up, and selling the papers in the street, which bugged him. So he invented a nom du plume, "Silence Dogood," and started writing editorial letters about matters divers and sundry in the colony, and especially how poorly a woman like her was treated.

Ben would slip the screeds under the door of the shop at night, and his brother would print them in the paper. They were a big hit, and everyone wanted to know: Who was Silence Dogood? Ben knew he had catapulted his brother's paper to prominence, and figured he'd admit his ruse to his brother and claim his place as a writer for the paper.

His brother hit him.

Back to the compositor's bench. Eventually James got thrown in jail for annoying the local clergy about smallpox vaccinations, of all things, and Ben got to run the paper until they let his brother out of jail. He did a great job, and asked his brother if now he could write for the paper.

His brother hit him.

This grew tiresome. So he ran away to Philadelphia, on foot, though it was illegal to do so at the time -- it made him a vagrant. Eventually he found a job working at the local printer. But that first day, he spent his last money on a few stale rolls, and sat eating them --wet, disheveled, footsore, broke, in a strange city -- and still managed to attract the attention of the woman he'd marry seven years later: Deborah Read. And all that was before his eighteenth birthday.

Benjamin's 300th birthday anniversary is this year, and the rest of his life is being endlessly dissected and pawed over for the glory and good sense in it, and like a very few men, his life can take almost endless scrutiny without running out of things to look at. I'll leave the rest to others. But I had an adventure with Ben, and I'd like to share it.

I grew up in the first town in America named for Ben Franklin. It was part of Wrentham, which originally was part of Dedham, Massachusetts, but in 1738, when they got themselves a Congregational parish, they decided to break away, and call the new town Exeter. Later, someone got the bright idea that if they offered to flatter the most famous -- and one of the richest -- men in America, Ben Franklin, by offering to name the town after him, maybe they could flatter enough money out of the old patriot for a bell for their church steeple.

"Sense is preferable to sound," Franklin wrote back, and sent them a crate of books instead. And so the first public library in the country was born. The town had other benefactors over the years, and in 1904, the daughters of the most prominent family in Franklin, the Rays, dedicated a magnificent NeoClassical library to honor their parents.

I spent more hours in that library than all the Italian stonemasons the Rays imported to build it ever did, combined. I haunted it. It looked almost exactly like the picture you see above when I was a child. How could you not know that books and words and scholarship were a noble and important thing when you sat in that magnificent reading room under the watchful eyes of the semi-nudes in the mural? You know, the formerly nude figures that Tommaso Juglaris had to return to paint additional clothes on, to shut the old biddy Ray sisters up.

A book was an expensive and rare thing for us then. I could list every book in my house in 1964 right now; it wouldn't take long. I read eveything in the children's library by the time I was seven. I wanted to go upstairs, where the adult books were, when adult books meant something else than they do now. They told me I was too young and I'd tear the pages from the books or put lollipops in the card files or roller skate around in there or something; my mother had to go and explain to them that I needed to see more than the four newspapers my father would bring home every night. They relented.

The library had massive bronze doors with big rings you had to turn to enter, and at first I was too small and had to wait for someone to enter or exit, and I'd dart in. It was a temple, and I was a votary. And there, in the reading room, were Ben Franklin's Books. The books were just stuck in a glass-doored cabinet in the reading room. I had read every damn thing in that library, including all the encyclopedias. I had walked past Franklin's books hundreds of times, and watched others go past them without giving them a glance thousands of times.

Like the Spanish Prisoner story, one day I just tried opening it. It was unlocked. It was a wonder no one, including me, had ever thought of that before. I get the feeling Ben Franklin was cleaning out his back room when he donated the books. No matter. I don't remember exactly what any of them were. They've blended together with all the others I scoured for the next thing I wanted to know, and the next, and the one after that. And I put them back without anyone ever knowing. But I knew.

The library's still there, because stone don't burn; most every other stately Victorian era house the Rays built in town has been burned down by the dissipated Dean College students who eventually used them as dormitories. I wandered through the library a few years ago. They've ruined it of course; it's full of lousy books and rental movies I'd cross the street to avoid seeing, crummy furniture and computers no one needs in a library much. And Franklin's books aren't out where you can see them any more.

What gets into your mind? Where does the inspiration come from? What gave me the idea I wanted to look at those books like the damned want icewater? Beats me. Why do you walk to Philadelphia and buy rolls? I can tell you it was fun to hold them in my hands, all those years ago, and think about the man that sent them, through the ages, for me.

Silence Dogood would understand.

11 comments:

Maxine Weiss said...

The chairs don't have armrests, and they are not well-cushioned. The flimsy backs (a couple of wooden boards)---very wobbly. They needed much more substantial chairs with armrests, and a cushioned, patterned backing.

The lamps on the tables are ungainly. I'd like to see a much more sleeker, clever style of lamp.

Also, that room needs a large chandelier to fill the space of the high vaulted ceiling, or maybe a circle of very grand French crystal chandeliers.

Too much dead space begging to be filled. Some potted plants, maybe well-manicured cypresses would give warmth.

Plant-life, expansive ferns, and floral arrangements go a long way to reduce the musty coldness of rows of dusty books.

Greenery always makes an environment less stuffy.

Who's their decorator? Billy Haines. A touch of French country mixed with Hollywood regency would liven that place right up!

SippicanCottage said...

maxine shoots....SHE SCORES!!

Pogo said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Pogo said...

In 1743, Franklin became founding president of the American Philosophical Society, a "scholarly society" needed (in his words) "to cultivate the finer arts, and improve the common stock of knowledge". Members included Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Paine, Benjamin Rush, and Madison, as well as Lafayette, von Steuben, and Kosciusko.

All from a runaway typesetter.

I was in Philadelphia last week and played hooky from my last two conferences in order to vist the Independence Hall area, but found it stuffed with schoolbusloads of kids. The APS Museum was empty; its lonely door beckoning.

On display was an exhibit about the Russian princess Ekaterina Dashkova. She was quite smart herself, speaking 7 languages, writing the first Russian dictionary, and composing songs. At age 19 she helped engineer a palace coup to depose Emperor Peter III, installing Catherine the Great as Empress. She had disguised herself as a soldier to ride with the revolt (oddly mirroring Franklin's printed female disguise)

Dashkova and Franklin met just once, in Paris, February 3, 1781. As a result of this brief encounter, Franklin nominated Dashkova APS's first female member. Dashkova, director of Russia’s Imperial Academy of Sciences and Arts, similarly installed Franklin as its first American member.

I walked from there to his gravesite at Christ's Church graveyard. He came to define "American": the rise from nothing to something, the effort, the rejection of class (and gender, apparently) as dividing lines, the drive for knowledge, the search for better.

That night I listened to the group Talisman perform Russian Women Composers from the Court of Catherine the Great, including a few pieces by Dashkova. While my palate is too unrefined for that style of music, it was beautiful to see.

A question: Is there one Franklin biography you'd suggest as superior?

Bob said...

Totally cool story! And you have a great style, too. I think you captured the Franklin "essence" far, far better than - cripes, I almost forgot the name, but IMDB came to the rescue - National Treasure, that movie with Nicholas Cage where they steal the Declaration of Independence.

Uncle Mikey said...

Loves it. I'm becoming a huge Sippican Cottage fan and will raid your archives, fondling your texts while no one's looking.

SippicanCottage said...

Mikey- wash your hands first, will ya?

Bob- Thank you for your kind words. I missed that movie. Was Franklin featured heavily in it? I heard it was was some kind of Masonic Lodge world domination extravaganza. I think I need to get out more.

Pogo- Like you probably, I'm captivated by the idea of all those people aggregated in one place. The intellectual firepower! The drinking! And like you, I have a tendency to wander into the side door of things when no one's looking. Boston's full of old haunts like that that no one goes to. People generally would much rather go on the Spin and Hurl at the mouse place in the swamp, I guess.

I have a confession- I don't think I've ever read a biography of Franklin. I was always a Washington/Hamilton sort of guy. I read his autobiography many moons ago. It's fantastic. And of course, his Poor Richard's Almanac can be read and reread until you're dead. You can always find something new and interesting in it.

A friend of mine wrote the history of the town of Franklin. He's absolutely chock-a-block full of wild tales about these guys. He told me the story of the bell. He said old Ben was kind of peeved at the request for the bell money, and sent the books as a kind of generous insult. Fantastic.

Pogo said...

You have me pegged, I'm afraid.

A tendency towards seeking out alleyways, off-streets, forgotten paths, and the unusal is a habit that affects my choices in tourism, books, and music.

To have been a bartender in Philadelphia in those raucous times... although more likely while serving beer to George and Ben and Thomas he kvetched, "Never a damned tip. Never."

SippicanCottage said...

Bartender in colonial Philly? Cool. How 'bout the tailor to the redcoats and spy for the Washington and Hamilton, with the greatest name of the Gaelic persuasion ever, Hercules Mulligan?

Pogo, Sippican, Sam Adams, Hercules Mulligan, and Aaron Burr on a pub crawl. "Insurrections" pale in comparison.

Bob said...

You asked, "Was Franklin featured heavily in it? I heard it was was some kind of Masonic Lodge world domination extravaganza. I think I need to get out more."

Franklin wasn't featured heavily, but his (supposed) inventions were, and I believe the Nicolas Cage character was a descendant of Franklin's. I don't know if I'd say there was a heavy Masonic world domination theme, but there was at least one hint of "they're everywhere." Not a horrible movie, certainly not as movies these days go, but perhaps a little over-the-top.

Anonymous said...

It would also be interesting to investigate Ben from the perspective of his peers or his women, his tailor, his mother, his sisters, his teachers,his brother, at the time. I'd join that pub crawl but wouldn't be an invited female. I too search out side doors. far more interesting. I have also learned to look up and look down, and look behind things which renders satisfying results.
I love libraries. I like the library in your photo just the way it is. I like a library that commands respect for its materials. Betty.