Poor Richard’s Lament is not only a grand and gorgeous novel; it is also, as Fitzgerald’s Franklin might put it, a most timely one. At a time when a host of economic and social ills is causing many of us to contemplate a world beyond materialism and narcissism, Poor Richard’s Lament juices up the process with an ever-building sense of moral urgency. Toward this end, this hugely ambitious imagination (nine years in the making) moves seamlessly from savage diagnosis to prophecy; from lush inventiveness to inspiration; from damning indictment to redemption.
Where to begin to sing the praises of this singular work? Perhaps by confessing that, as an historian who has devoted a goodly portion of his professional life to studying the life and times of Benjamin Franklin, I was not far into the first half of Fitzgerald’s delicious invention when I found myself marveling at the depth of the author’s understanding of America’s greatest Founding Father as well as the long-ago world in which this great man moved. Fitzgerald had clearly done his homework.
I did wonder, though, whether – despite the dynamism of the courtroom histrionics that dominate the first half of the book – others might be so taken. Indeed, at first blush, these early pages seemed to me they might hold far more fascination for those steeped in the sensibilities of 18th century America than for those who were largely innocent of such. And as much as I found myself fascinated by Fitzgerald’s devastating case for the prosecution, in the fanciful celestial court before which Franklin stands trial, I also found myself wishing to get back to Fitzgerald’s interwoven tales of the present, and of the skullduggerous ethic of “a little conveniency of expediency” that Fitzgerald’s Franklin would, bit by painful bit, learn to lament.
Little did I reckon with Fitzgerald’s audacity! Little did I anticipate that, with a little patience, I would soon enough have Ben in the very midst of the sordid Machiavellians of our own time! Little did I appreciate that Fitzgerald would have the brilliance to sustain two distinct dictions – almost two distinct languages – as 18th-century Ben engaged 21st-century America!
There is, in fact, sheer genius in Fitzgerald’s imagination of Ben Franklin in the twenty-first century. Poor Richard’s Lament sees our world as Ben would have encountered it in all its manifold strangeness and, at the same time, makes completely plausible Ben’s deciphering of it. Fitzgerald accomplishes this astonishing feat over and over and over again, versus just making one Herculean effort in that direction, for effect, then giving himself a pass on the rest. Fitzgerald dares to put Ben into our world literally – diction, clothes, bifocals, cane, gout, and all.
There is genius also in the way in which Fitzgerald draws a most telling indictment of our mutual alienation from one another and our common indifference toward each other. He shows us to ourselves, terrifyingly, through the ways in which our barbaric isolation from one another strikes Ben’s 18th-century sensibility. And he does all this with sly comedic wit and dazzling verbal virtuosity, multiplying, and multiplying again, the deft ways in which Ben deflects the occasional strays who do actually notice his oddness, fending off their curiosity without ever descending into dishonesty.
Fitzgerald’s wizardry with words comes through most breathtakingly in the daring way he pitches his tent right on Franklin’s aphoristic turf. From start to finish, he propounds Poor Richardisms all his own, many of them so good that Franklin would have envied them and, as was his wont, stolen them. Better still, Fitzgerald uses those succulent nuggets exactly as paradoxically as Franklin did, affirming the power of the past at every turn, even as he insists we can set that power at naught.
For all that Fitzgerald gives us a reformed Franklin, he also catches exquisitely the old one, in all the equipoise of intense seriousness and incorrigible playfulness of which he was such a rare master. If there is any way at all in which Poor Richard’s Lament misses Ben, it may be that it renders him intelligible in the urgency of his desperation to make amends, whereas the historical Franklin coiled himself in impenetrable ironies that we will never quite penetrate.
If I have any other historian’s pedantic criticism of this remarkable historical fiction, it is that the displacement of egoistic isolation by way of a compassionate concern for others that Fitzgerald imagines in Ben’s second chance was, to my mind, already evident in Ben in his first time round. Maybe not with his wife and children, but with virtually everyone else (including slaves).
Nonetheless, I like Fitzgerald’s imagined Ben better than I like my “historical” one. And not just because redemption makes a better story, but also because Ben’s desperate repentance, in the one day that the novel grants him to come back to life in the twenty-first century, makes him endearingly reckless as he never was for long in life. I adored watching Fitzgerald make Ben’s every outlandish gambit and suicidally foolhardy gamble seem somehow plausible, even verisimilitudinous, in a veritably Enlightened magic realism. I adored the connections and coincidences that strain credulity yet unfold so naturally that I began waiting avidly for what would unfold next and how it would work in the gleefully convoluted plot line that itself asserts so exuberantly the kindredness of all humankind across the centuries.
There are a hundred hits here, maybe a hundred hundred. The pleasures of Fitzgerald’s prose, passion, and intelligence pervade every page. There is not only a brilliant weaving of race and gender inequality but also a still more brilliant weaving of Ben’s unforgivingness toward his son William and the unforgivableness of Ben’s capitulation on slavery and the three-fifths clause, all entwined with consummate artistry by way of a single metaphor: “for want of a nail.”
There is also the gorgeous turning of Ben’s own words and best principles against him throughout the prosecution, and the excruciating detail of Ben’s heartlessness toward his wife, his children, and even his grandson, on and on, now one, now the other, now the one again, the probing going ever deeper and the pain growing ever more palpable, the more because Fitzgerald understands and evokes the plight and the heroism of those forgotten members of Franklin’s family so keenly. Even I, an ardent Franklin admirer, felt a sympathy for them, and a horror toward Franklin, I had never felt before.
Fitzgerald can coin fabulous phrases, as in “the miracle of compound disinterest.” He has a pitch-perfect ear, as in the succession of news clips that he concocts so convincingly that I was through the first ten of them, thinking he’d just found them and cobbled them together here before it began to dawn on me that he’d made them all up. He has an extraordinary way with words, as in the prophetic Poor Richardism, When the grease of commerce is falsehood, how long before the wheels fall off the wagon? He can catch vast implications in a few clauses, as in the pithy Poor Richardism that for people to give a shit, they must first be led to the privy, a veritable if vulgar epigram for the whole book.
But the beauty of this book is not just in its verbal pyrotechnics, ravishing though they are. It is, still more, in the constant breath of humane inspiration that guides a steady succession of searing, soaring triumphs of communion and caritas. Fitzgerald is that rarest of birds: a great writer and a great soul. He has summoned from unfathomable depths of despair an imagining of the greatest of Americans that is not only better than the original but also worthy of his own remarkable spirit.
Michael W. Zuckerman
University of Pennsylvania
“A re-imagining of Benjamin Franklin you will not soon forget” – Walter Isaacson, author of Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
“One of the most insightful looks at the full depth of Franklin available. Do not miss it!” – Ralph Archbold (“Ben Franklin”)
“A very well crafted tale, brilliantly researched” – Roy Goodman, Curator of Printed Materials, American Philosophical Society
“Perhaps the most finely wrought fictional rendering of an historical personage since Tolstoy’s Napoleon” – Matt Fitzgerald, author/journalist
“An astonishing feat of imagination. Fitzgerald uses superb prose to reveal the character and soul of Ben Franklin in ways nonfiction never could.” – Lewis Treistman, MSW
“A powerful adventure in reading!” – Tom Gidley, LLD, PhD
“Written with uncommon love for and attention to language, story, and character; nearly every page sparkles with insight and wisdom” – Ban Nyo Sho Shin, Buddhist monk
“A grand and gorgeous book! The pleasures of prose, passion, and intelligence pervade these pages” – Michael Zuckerman, University of Pennsylvania
“A tour de force! PRL should be required reading in every high school and college in the nation” – Dori Hale, poet
“An incredible piece of work!” – William McKeeman, former faculty chair, Wang Institute of Graduate Studies