Jill Lepore is both a historian at Harvard — the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University, to be precise — and since 2005 a staff writer at The New Yorker, to which she contributes brilliant (and sometimes laugh-out-loud) takes on American politics, history, law, and culture.
Lepore is very much at home in the little-explored backways of history. She slips on her white cotton archivist gloves, and has at centuries past. In her characteristically charming way, she says she often feels as if she knows “17th and 18th century New England and New York as well as I know my neighborhood today.”
While she might have mined the private and public lives of some of those centuries’ most compelling players — Benjamin Franklin and his little-known younger sister Jane, to name but two — Lepore is uncomfortable mining her own personal life, at least, not for publication.
She frames her reticence with a historian’s focus: “I love writing about a lot of things but probably especially politics, history, and law,” she wrote in a recent exchange of emails with me. “Historically, since Jane Franklin’s day, say, those are things that men write about far more often than women do. Since the 18th century, with the rise of the novel and the beginnings of a movement to educate girls (before then, few women learned to write), women have been writing other sorts of things, most often fiction and, more lately, memoir. That’s obviously a gross generalization but, when you look at the numbers, it’s more true than you might at first have suspected. I’ve got nothing against personal essays. I just think I shouldn’t write them, because I think the gender/genre division hobbles public culture, distorts history, biases the law, impoverishes politics, and diminishes literature.”“True confession: I live by a very long list of rules. I created a Prodigal Daughter Exception to my no-personal-essay rule, because a) I owed it to my mother, and b) the essay got a lot of politics, history, and law in it.”
Her story “The Prodigal Daughter,” then, bears close examination. It ran in The New Yorker July 8, 2013, almost seven months to the day after Lepore’s mother, Marjorie Zecher Lepore, had died. In October, 2013, Lepore’s “Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin” was published; it would become a National Book Award for Nonfiction finalist, and was ranked one of the best books of the year on rosters from The Boston Globe to NPR to The New York Times to Time magazine.
The poignancy of the essay, perhaps, comes in good measure from Lepore’s masterful placement of the telling detail, the unforgettable detail (don’t miss the blueberry bush, or the breakfast her mother never again bothered to cook, and beware the “garagery”). That capacity for plucking the sole totem that says so much is one exercised and refined over the decades of historical sleuthing.
Curiously, it might be Lepore’s natural disinclination to mine her own personal history that makes for some of the essay’s most breathtaking moments. She deftly lays out the sparest of sentences, which practically explode with their volumes of suggestion, all telescoped into short sweeping strokes. It’s the very bristling of the writer, in fact, that makes the words – and the meaning behind them – refuse to fade, and so the moments linger, not unlike the haunting cry of a cello.
Much of the tension in “Prodigal Daughter” lies in the rubbing up of the personal against the historical — a technique Lepore refers to as “four-handed piano” — but she cautions journalists against casually wading into history.
“The Tolstoy-reminds-me-of-my-dad essay is not generally a workable proposition,” Lepore wrote me. “I think the gambit worked here, if it worked, because I’ve been studying and teaching 18th century America for God knows how long and I also spent years, years, reading Jane’s letters. I kept them on my nightstand. I read them constantly, trying to puzzle out how to bring a reader into her world, a world so radically different from our own. Then I spent years writing the book. So the parts of the book that get imported into the essay are like the reduction of a sauce that has been simmering so long you don’t even remember turning on the stove. I can’t recommend that.”
Still, there is much to be learned in paying close attention to how Lepore, the historian, penned her way so indelibly across the landscape she knew best as the prodigal daughter.
My questions are in red, her responses in blue. To read the story without annotations first, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button below the byline, up and to the right.
The Prodigal Daughter
Writing, history, mourning
Originally published on The New Yorker on July 8, 2013
In the trunk of her car, my mother used to keep a collapsible easel, a clutch of brushes, a little wooden case stocked with tubes of paint, and, tucked into the spare-tire well, one of my father’s old, tobacco-stained shirts, for a smock. She’d be out running errands, see something wonderful, pull over, and pop the trunk. I never knew anyone better prepared to meet with beauty. Beautiful…
“Fingers nimble, brush or thimble,” my mother’s college yearbook said about her. These two paragraphs are how I began my mother’s eulogy, which I wrote the day after she died. I was wandering around the house, touching and smelling her things, like that yearbook, and the crayon drawer. The remains of a life. The cabinets in our kitchen used to be a murky green. One day, I came home from kindergarten to find that my mother had painted every cabinet sunflower yellow. “I was just so sick of that green,” she said, washing up, briskly, at the kitchen sink. She stitched quilts; she painted murals. She had one dresser drawer filled with buttons and another with crayons. She once built me a doll house out of a stack of shoeboxes. She papered the rooms with scraps of wallpaper and lit them with strings of colored Christmas-tree lights as brightly as she lit my childhood with her trapped passion. Marvelous laying out of your essential theme here. Do these things just happen or do you consciously set out to construct them? Oh, I don’t know. Both, I guess. The essay is the story of two women, both trapped in their houses. I always thought of my mother as trapped in a house. It wasn’t until her death, though, that I thought about that dollhouse as a metaphor. But then it sort of landed on me, as if it had been picked up in a tornado, and dropped on my head.
She’d grown up in a small town in Massachusetts, a devout Catholic. After college—a Catholic school in New Rochelle—she’d wanted to go places. It was 1949: the war was over; the world was wide. She got engaged to a man named Winstanley, who had a job with the State Department; she wanted to marry him because he was about to be posted to Berlin. That fell apart. You have a brilliant way of telescoping a whole into its essence. I have a terrible weakness for short sentences. I’m sure I overuse them. But, like my mother, I can’t stand talking about my feelings. That broken engagement hurt her terribly. But it was like my father and the Second World War. He would never talk about his past, and she would never talk about hers. That briskness, about something painful: that’s her. For a while, she worked as a designer for the Milton Bradley Company, in Springfield, but she couldn’t stand how, from her apartment, she could hear the keening of the polar bear in the city zoo. (“He had the smallest cage you ever saw,” she told me. “All night, he cried.”) Then she drove across the country in a jalopy and took a slow boat from San Diego to Honolulu. After that, she became a stewardess, so that she could see Europe. In 1955, she had to quit and come back home, to Massachusetts, to take care of her mother, who was dying. That’s when she met my father, a junior-high-school principal: he hired her as an art teacher. Every day, he left a poem in her mailbox in the teachers’ room. The filthiest ones are the best. (“Marjorie, Marjorie, let me park my car in your garagery.”) What made you want to add this? Your sense of humor? Character development? Making your characters leap off the page? Partly I just love that my father wrote love poems to my mother, and this one cracks me up. Also, my father had a very filthy sense of humor, which I adored. But I bet mainly I put this in here because my father is so absent from this essay, such a shadowy figure, not a villain, not even close, but quite inscrutable. He loved my mother so deeply; I wanted to signal that here, and that he was playful, too. I couldn’t see how the reader could see why she married him without adding this. He told her he wanted to live in Spain. He was courting; he was lying; no one hated to go anywhere more than my father; he almost never left town. Except for during the war, he had never lived anywhere but his mother’s house.
My mother married my father in 1956. She was twenty-eight and he was thirty-one. She loved him with a fierce steadiness borne of loyalty, determination, and an unyielding dignity. On their honeymoon, in a cabin in Maine, for their first breakfast together, she made him blueberry pancakes. Pushing back his plate, he told her he didn’t like blueberries. In fifty-five years of marriage, she never again cooked him breakfast. So much is said here. I got utterly lovely reader mail after this essay was published. I still get it; I think people send it to friends, when they’re mourning their parents. And this line is what most people write about when they write. Everyone has a story like this about their parents. One woman had very nearly the same story about her mother, except it had to do with cherries.
Before I was born, my parents bought a house on Franklin Street. This is where the essay leaves the eulogy behind. A lot of the stuff before this point is from the eulogy, not all of it, but most of it. But here is where I begin braiding together of the story of my mother and me with the story of Jane and Benjamin Franklin. Every little detail here is chosen for what it can do for that braid. “J” “F”: my two favorite letters, and “JF,” Jane’s initials. Working this way was tricky. It’s like playing four-handed piano. (My mother promptly planted a blueberry bush in the back yard.) Brilliant detail (given story above, of course). The year I learned the alphabet, the letter “J,” the fishing hook, was my favorite, except for “F.” “I am four and my mother is forty-four and my father’s name is Frank and my house is 44 Franklin Street,” I would whisper, when no one was listening: I was the youngest. Master of poetry distilled into prose, volumes distilled into single clause.
The street I grew up on was named for Benjamin Franklin. For a long time, no name was more famous. “There have been as great Souls unknown to fame as any of the most famous,” the man himself liked to say, shrugging it off. Brilliant pivot from the personal to the historical. Do you lay out the architecture or do these moments just make themselves known in that mystical animating force of writing? I feel I should say, I was so excited to be able to do this here. Most of my work as a historian is about trying to argue for the importance of ordinary lives and it can be hard to convince the people who read history books that ordinary lives matter. I stumbled into the writing of this essay but I was so excited, while writing it, because I kept thinking, “OK, this will be convincing. This life, this life.”
Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston in 1706. He was the youngest of his father’s ten sons. His sister Jane was born in 1712. She was the youngest of their father’s seven daughters.
Noting the synchrony of you and the two Franklins being youngest in your respective sets – as you just mentioned, each parallel detail serves what you call “the braiding” of each of your stories.
Benny and Jenny, they were called, when they were little.
I never heard of Jane Franklin when I lived on Franklin Street. I only came across her name on a day, much later, when I sat down on the floor of a library to read the first thirty-odd volumes of Benjamin Franklin’s published papers. I pulled one volume after another off the shelf, and turned the pages, astonished. She was everywhere, threaded through his life, like a slip stitch. I love the sewing reference, the return to your mother’s nimble fingers This was intentional. My mother taught me to sew and, although I hate to paint, I love to sew, and so did she. But on the other hand, these domestic images are also something of a tic of mine. I put them in essays all the time. Sometimes I feel as though I’m smuggling them in, especially into essays about men. I once wrote, in an essay about Benjamin Franklin, that he was so tight, good, rhetorically, that it was as though he were swaddling his argument, like a baby. That I did for Jane.
We “had sildom any contention among us,” she wrote him, looking back at their childhood. “All was Harmony.”
He remembered it differently. “I think our Family were always subject to being a little Miffy.”
She took his hint. “You Introduce your Reproof of my Miffy temper so Politely,” she wrote back, slyly, “won cant a Void wishing to have conquered it as you have.”
He loved no one longer. She loved no one better. She thought of him as her “Second Self.” No two people in their family were more alike. Their lives could hardly have been more different. Boys were taught to read and write, girls to read and stitch. Three in five women in New England couldn’t even sign their names, and those who could sign usually couldn’t actually write. Signing is mechanical; writing is an art. Are you beginning to lay out your suggestion that Jane’s squelched literary life paralleled your mother’s clipped artistic wings? Yes. I’m also trying, here, to educate the reader without boring the reader. Why were there so few women writers? Uh, because most women only knew how to read.
Benjamin Franklin taught himself to write with wit and force and style. His sister never learned how to spell. What she did learn, he taught her. It was a little cruel, in its kindness, because when he left the lessons ended.
He ran away in 1723, when he was seventeen and she was eleven. The day he turned twenty-one, he wrote her a letter—she was fourteen—beginning a correspondence that would last until his death. (He wrote more letters to her than he wrote to anyone else.) He became a printer, a philosopher, and a statesman. She became a wife, a mother, and a widow. He signed the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Paris, and the Constitution. She strained to form the letters of her name. This is a thing I do all the time, the rhyming within a sentence, a chime. It’s probably a tic, too. I like it here. I’m not sure it always works. Maybe it goes too far. “Jane” is very easy to chime, though. It’s so tempting ….
He wrote the story of his life, about a boy who runs away from a life of poverty and obscurity in cramped, pious Boston to become an enlightened, independent man of the world: a free man. He meant it as an allegory about America.
“One Half the World does not know how the other Half lives,” he once wrote. Jane Franklin was his other half. If his life is an allegory, so is hers. Maybe worth pointing out that here I am doing something a little reckless or, I don’t think it’s reckless as writing, but historians might raise an eyebrow. Working from 18th century letters I often set them as dialogue, in hopes that the reader can hear the characters. But here I’m very nearly placing my mother in conversation with Benjamin Franklin, since this is all set as dialog. “Write a book about her!” my mother said, when I told her about Jane Franklin. I thought she was joking. It would be like painting a phantom. Beautiful line….
History’s written from what can be found; what isn’t saved is lost, sunken and rotted, eaten by earth. Jane kept the letters her brother sent her. But half the letters she sent him—three decades’ worth—are missing. Most likely, he threw them away. Maybe someone burned them. It hardly matters. A one-sided correspondence is a house without windows, a left shoe, a pair of spectacles, smashed.
My mother liked to command me to do things I found scary. Volumes telescoped into this line, and yet in its minimalism it is so revealing. I always wanted to stay home and read. My mother only ever wanted me to get away. She brought me with her wherever she went. She once sent me to live with my aunt in Connecticut. (“Just to see someplace different.”) One year, she saved up to send me to a week of Girl Scout camp, the most exotic adventure I had ever heard of. I got homesick, and begged her to let me come home. “Oh, stop,” she said. “And don’t you dare call me again, either.” When I was eleven, she took me to New York City, a place no one else in my family had ever been. It was the weekend of the annual gay-pride parade, on Christopher Street. “Isn’t that interesting?” she said. She took a picture of me next to five men dressed in black leather carrying a banner that read “Cocksuckers Unite”—this was 1978 —so that I’d remember the existence of a world beyond Franklin Street. No one else in my family left home to go to college. My mother made sure I did. She might as well have written me a letter: “Run away, run away.” By then, I didn’t need a push.
Jane Franklin never ran away, I love the interlooping of characters, the parallels drawn and re-drawn—run away/ran away. Jane: You; Your mother: Jane. Right, that’s the four-handed piano! But here the pairing of hands is different. Here the pair is me and Jane. Elsewhere in the essay, and mainly in the essay, the pair is my mother and Jane. But sometimes I switch hands. and never wrote the story of her life. But she did once stitch four sheets of foolscap between two covers to make a little book of sixteen pages. In an archive in Boston, I held it in my hands. I pictured her making it. Her paper was made from rags, soaked and pulped and strained and dried. Her thread was made from flax, combed and spun and dyed and twisted. She dipped the nib of a pen slit from the feather of a bird into a pot of ink boiled of oil mixed with soot and, on the first page, wrote three words: “Book of Ages”—a lavish, calligraphic letter “B,” a graceful, slender, artful “A.” She would have learned this—an Italian round hand—out of a writing manual, like “The American Instructor: Or, Young Man’s Best Companion,” a book her brother printed in Philadelphia.
At the top of the next page, in a much smaller and plainer hand, she began her chronicle:
Jane Franklin Born on March 27-1712
Edward Mecom Marryed to Jane Franklin the 27th of July 1727.
The Book of Ages: her age. Born, March 27, 1712; married, July 27, 1727. Fifteen years four months. She was a child. The legal age for marriage in Massachusetts was sixteen; the average age was twenty-four, which is the age at which her brother Benjamin married and, excepting Jane, the average age at which her sisters were married.
The man she married, Edward Mecom, was twenty-two. He was poor, he was a saddler, and he was a Scot. He wore a wig and a beaver hat. She never once wrote anything about him expressing the least affection.
She added another line:
Josiah Mecom their first Born on Wednesday June the 4: 1729
She named this child, her first, for her father.
and Died May the 18-1730.
The child of her childhood died This construction is so beautiful… three weeks shy of his first birthday. I wrote 250 pages of this book, this biography of Jane Franklin, and then threw it all away, because I couldn’t bear how sad it was. It devastated me to work on it. But then I wrote an op-ed for the NYT, called “Poor Jane’s Almanac,” the occasion for which was a debate over funding for contraception. And the op-ed was terribly sad, in just this way, but hundreds, no kidding, hundreds of people wrote to me to say, “Is there a book? Finish the book!!” That’s when I realized that the sorrow of the story was the reason to write it, not the reason not to.
“A Dead Child is a sight no more surprizing than a broken Pitcher,” Cotton Mather preached, in a sermon called “Right Thoughts in Sad Hours.” One in four children died before the age of ten. The dead were wrapped in linen dipped in melted wax while a box made of pine was built and painted black. Puritans banned prayers for the dead: at the grave, there would be no sermon. Nor, ministers warned, ought there to be tears. “A Token for Mourners or, The Advice of Christ to a Distressed Mother, bewailing the Death of her Dear and Only Son” cited Luke 7:13: “Weepe not.” This is an elemental question, but so essential: So you are a historian, and your fluency with archival detective work brings you great treasures, adds texture and nuance to the stories you tell. How would you advise the journalist to make more use of historical record? What skills should the journalist pay more attention to? What do you, as a historian, find lacking in much of the journalism you read? What standards of accuracy do historians and journalists share, where do we differ? Oh, I don’t know. These are lines that are the product of decades of studying and teaching early American history. I often feel that I know 17th and 18th century New England and New York as well as I know my neighborhood today. I’m not sure you can wade in this world. The trouble with dipping a toe or two is that everything looks sort of cute and quaint. I find that unbearable, when people write about the past that way. The Puritans, in particular, are painted as ridiculous. I guess I’d say what I say to my students. I have on my website an essay called “How to Write a Paper for this Class,” and what it mainly says is this: people didn’t live and die to support some weak claim you’d like to make in your paper, or in tomorrow’s newspaper. Treat the dead with care: one day, you’ll be dead, too.
What remains of a life? “Remains” means what remains of the body after death. But remains are also unpublished papers. And descendants are remains, too. The Boston Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet wrote about her children as “my little babes, my dear remains.” But Bradstreet’s poems were her children, as well: “Thou ill-form’d offspring of my feeble brain.” Her words were all that her children would, one day, have left of her. “If chance to thine eyes shall bring this verse,” she told them, “kiss this paper.”
Jane didn’t know how to write a poem. She couldn’t have afforded a headstone. Instead, she went home, and wrote a book of remembrance. Kiss this paper.
College was something of a bust. This is a brilliantly telescoped sentence. We get what we need to know, but you’ve chosen to leave out plenty of detail. What’s your thinking behind providing such spare biography of yourself? This is an echo of “It fell apart,” from above. College was miserable. Why dwell on it? My mother liked to say, and so do I: “Tamp it down, up we go.” It was the nineteen-eighties. On the one hand, Andrea Dworkin; on the other, Jacques Derrida. I took a job as a secretary, on the theory that it would give me more time to read what I wanted. “Is that working out?” my mother wanted to know. I wrote a graduate-school application essay about a short story of Isak Dinesen’s called “The Blank Page.” Very “A Room of One’s Own.” Very “The Madwoman in the Attic.” (“I write now in my own litle chamber,” Jane wrote, when she was sixty-four, “& nobod up in the house near me to Desturb me.” She was very happy to have that room, but not having it sooner isn’t why she didn’t write more or better.) Then, suddenly, I realized that my life plan— bashful daughter of shackled artist reads “The Yellow Wallpaper”—was narrow, hackneyed, daffy. This is silly but I always regretted leaving out the word “and” before “daffy,” because it needs that pause. When an essay goes to press I obsess about stuff like that. I let this go, and always regretted it.
I was sick of silence, sick of attics and wallpaper, sick of blank pages and miniature rooms, sick of blighted girlhood. I wanted to study war. I wanted to investigate atrocity. I wanted to write about politics. Really, I wanted to write about anything but Jane Franklin. This paragraph brilliantly highlights the reasons Jane Franklin would be the last person you wanted to write about.
“What about beauty?” my mother pressed. I kept making excuses. I was pregnant. (“Edward Mecom Born on Munday the 29 March 1731.”) I was too busy. (“My mind is keept in a contineual Agitation that I Dont know how to write,” Jane once apologized.) I was pregnant again. (“Benjamin Mecom Born on Fryday the 29 of December 1732.”) I was so tired. (“My litle wons are Interupting me Every miniut.”) I was pregnant again. (“Ebenezer Mecom Born on May the 2 1735.”) I felt rebuked, even by Jane herself. (“I was almost Tempted to think you had forgot me but I check those thoughts with the consideration of the dificulties you must labour under.”) I hadn’t forgotten her. I just couldn’t bear to think about her, trapped in that house. The point in this paragraph, the weaving of your story and Jane, is to underline common threads between the two of you? I like how your question comes in the form of a loom metaphor! Yes, here the pair is again me and Jane. So this does a bunch of work. It establishes a chronology in my life: I had three sons in a short span of years, a time in my life when I found it extremely difficult to think straight and writing seemed impossible. But I wouldn’t want to just say that. Who cares? Still, I need to establish it, and the way I did it here was by inviting any reader who has ever taken care of a baby to remember how difficult it is to think about anything except that baby: “My little wons are Interupting me Every miniut.” And yet she wrote that sentence, and that letter!!
But Benjamin Franklin: I adored him. He was funny and brilliant and generous and fortunate. Every year of his life, his world got bigger. So did mine. When he had something to say, he said it. So did I. My mother and I had got tangled up, like skeins. I wasn’t the one who identified with Jane.
The more I thought about Jane, the sadder it got. I tried to picture it. Her belly swelled, and emptied, and swelled again. Her breasts filled, and emptied, and filled again. Her days were days of flesh Beautiful poetry there. : the little legs and little arms, the little hands, clutched around her neck, the softness. A baby in her arms, she stared into kettles and tubs, swaying. The days passed to months, the months to years, and, in her Book of Ages, she pressed her children between the pages.
Her husband fell into debt. He may have gone mad. (Two of her sons became violently insane; they had to be locked up.) Jane and her children lived with her parents; she nursed them, in their old age. Josiah Franklin died in 1744. He was eighty-seven. In his will, he had divided his estate among his surviving children. Benjamin Franklin refused his portion: he gave it to Jane.
In 1751, Jane gave birth for the twelfth time. She was thirty-nine. She’d named her first baby for her father; she named this baby, her last, for her mother, Abiah Franklin:
Abiah mecom born augst 1st 1751.
The month Abiah Mecom was born, Benjamin Franklin took a seat in the Pennsylvania Assembly. His eighty-four-year-old mother wrote him a letter, with her daughter at her side. “I am very weeke and short bretht so that I Cant set to rite much,” Abiah Franklin explained. She asked her daughter to write for her. Aside from Jane’s Book of Ages, and notes she made in books she read, this is the only writing in her hand to survive, for the first four decades of her life:
P S Mother says she an’t able and so I must tell you my self that I rejoyce with you and bles god for you in all your prosperity and doubt not but you will be grater blessings to the world as he bestows upon you grater honers.
Mother says she an’t able and so I must. They’d got tangled, too.
Jane’s baby, Abiah Mecom, died within the year. So did Abiah Franklin:
my dear Mother Died May 8 1752.
She loved her; she washed her. She buried her. Love this construction, so powerful in its succinct chain of declarations. But it was Benjamin Franklin who paid for a gravestone, and wrote an epitaph:
And Abiah his Wife
Lie here interred.
They lived lovingly together in Wedlock
From this Instance, Reader,
Be encouraged to Diligence in thy Calling,
And distrust not Providence.
He was a pious & prudent Man,
She a discreet and virtuous Woman.
Their youngest Son,
In filial Regard to their Memory,
Places this Stone.
This book of remembrance was a monument, not to his parents but to Franklin himself: prodigal son.
“Do the right thing with Spirit,” Jane once wrote. It’s just the kind of thing my mother liked to say. One of Jane’s sons became a printer. He once printed a poem called “The Prodigal Daughter”: “She from her Mother in a Passion went, / Filling her aged Heart with Discontent.”
My mother’s heart began to fail. Again a brilliant pivot point, here from historical to personal. Again, the question: do you lay out these constructions, this architectural underpinning? How do you go about organizing your notes into a whole? To be clear, the passages about Jane and Benjamin Franklin in this essay are all versions of passages that appear in my biography of Jane, Book of Ages. So that material was all written, and there for the plundering. It’s so strange to me that while I was writing that book I never understood that it was a book about my mother. I didn’t see that, at all, until I sat down in my mother’s house to write her eulogy. But then all these interlacings—the heart—leapt out to me. She had one heart attack, and then another. Surgery, and more surgery. Eventually, she had a defibrillator implanted in her chest. I’d visit her in the hospital; she’d send me away. All I wanted was to be there, with her, but that only made her remember going home to watch her mother die. “See? I’m fine,” she’d say. “Now. Please: go. You have things to do.”
I decided I had better read whatever of Jane’s letters had survived. The first is one she wrote in 1758, when she was forty-five years old, to Franklin’s wife, Deborah. This is her voice, gabby, frank, and vexed:
for so I must call you come what will & If I dont Express my self proper you must Excuse it seeing I have not been acostomed to Pay my Complements to Governer & Baronets Ladys I am in the midst of a grate wash & Sarah still sick, & would gladly been Excused writing this Post but my husband says I must write & Give you Joy which we searly Joyn in; I sopose it will not be news to you, but I will tell you how I came by it, Mr Fluker Tould Cousen Williams & he Docter Perkins who Brought it to my Poor Son nedey who has a nother Relaps into Raising Blood & has not Done won stroke of work this month but was Just a going to begin when he was again taken Ill pray Pardon my Bad writing & confused composure & acept it as coming from your Ladyships affectionat Sister & most obedent
She was in the middle of a great wash. One of her lodgers, Sarah, was ailing. Her poor son Edward (Neddy), who was married and a father, was sick again —weak and listless and coughing blood. But she had heard from Neddy, who heard it from her doctor, John Perkins, who heard it from Jonathan Williams, Sr., the husband of Jane’s friend Grace, who heard it from a Boston merchant, Thomas Flucker, that Benjamin Franklin had been given a baronetcy. Jane’s husband told her she must send her congratulations, “searly”—surely. She was miffed. If this ridiculous rumor was true, why, for heaven’s sake, was she the last to know about it?
“Your loving Sister,” or “Your affectionate Sister,” is how Jane usually signed off —not “your Ladyships affectionat Sister & most obedient Humble Servant.” That was a jab. Must she curtsey? Writing for a lay audience allows you to take off your objective historian’s hat and interject your own voice? Yes, but I am also a tireless pedant and what this part does is to teach the reader how to read a letter like the kind of letter Jane wrote. It’s not actually easy to read these letters. In the way that it was not easy for Jane to write, either. So I’m trying to take this difficult letter and allow the reader to read it the way I read it. I find Jane kind of funny sometimes. I like this petty little jab at her sister-in-law. I wanted the reader to find it funny, too. But I think, unglossed, it’s too hard a letter for the reader to read.
By words on a page, she wanted to be carried away—out of her house, out of Boston, out into the world. The more details the better. “The Sow has Piged,” a friend reported from Rhode Island, reminding her, “You told me to write you all.” She loved gossip. “Cousen willames Looks soon to Lyin,” she told Deborah, “she is so big I tell Her she will have two.” She once scolded her niece for writing letters that she found insufficiently chatty. “I want to know a Thousand litle Perticulars about your self yr Husband & the children such as your mother used to write me,” Jane commanded, adding, “it would be Next to Seeing the little things to hear some of there Prattle (Speaches If you Pleas) & have you Describe there persons & actions tell me who they Look like.” Stories, likenesses, characters: speeches.
My mother wasn’t much of a letter writer. Again, a glorious pivot from historical to personal, tied by the writing (or not) of letters. If she telephoned, she would yell, “This is your mother calling!” My sisters and my brother and I got her an iPad for her birthday. “If you call here keep talking as it takes us time to get to the phone,” she e-mailed me. She had a cell phone, for emergencies; she brought it with her when she had to go to the hospital. Once, she was kept waiting on a gurney, in a hallway, for hours.
“This is your mother calling!” I loved the way you told us above that this was your mother’s habit, and here you show it. Did you consider NOT repeating the phrase? What made you want to repeat it here? And also, this and the following dialogue brilliantly allows us to see and know your mother. Why did you choose to recount it here? My editor, the peerless Henry Finder, asked for this scene. My editor is brilliant in more or less every conceivable way in which it is possible for a person to be brilliant. This essay is, by far, the most personal thing I have ever published and I was uncomfortable with it and awkward about it. When I sent him a draft, he said it needed another scene with me and my mother. So I wrote this one. My editor, of course, was right. He is always right.
“I know, Mom. Why haven’t they gotten you a room?”
“Oh, I don’t mind,” she said. “The people here in the hallway are just fascinating.” She was giggling.
“Mom. Did they give you something for the pain?”
“Oh, yes, it’s wonderful.”
“The people are interesting?”
“Oh, yes. It’s like a soap opera here.” I love how you use your hilarious dialogue between mother and daughter in the same ways you allow dialogue from centuries past to leap off the page, to put the characters in conversation.
Jane, writing to her brother, worried that she had spelled so badly, and expressed herself so poorly—“my Blundering way of Expresing my self,” she called it—that he wouldn’t be able to understand what she meant to say. “I know I have wrote and speld this worse than I do sometimes,” she wrote him, “but I hope you will find it out.”
To “find out” a letter was to decipher it, to turn writing back into speech. Jane knew that letters weren’t supposed to be speeches written down; they were supposed to be more formal. Her brother warned her that she was too free with him. “You Long ago convinced me that there is many things Proper to convers with a Friend about that is not Proper to write,” she confessed. But, then, he scolded her, too, for not being free enough. “I was allways too Difident,” she said he had told her.
“Dont let it mortifie you that such a Scraw came from your Sister,” she begged him.
“Is there not a little Affectation in your Apology for the Incorrectness of your Writing?” he teased her. “Perhaps it is rather fishing for Commendation. You write better, in my Opinion, than most American Women.”
This was, miserably, true.
It was the diffidence that got to me. Female demurral isn’t charming. It’s maddening. Half the time, I wanted to throttle her. Could she ever, would she never, express a political opinion? I love the way you expertly skate thin ice here, thin I suppose from a historian’s perspective: You share your point of view on her, and you don’t hold back. Do you relish the license of writing as a historian journalist in which you more fluidly permeate the boundaries that would normally keep a historian reined in? I did that here, but nowhere do I do it in the biography of Jane. It would seriously bug me in a book. It does bug me in books. People do this a lot in books, insert themselves in this way. Usually, I can’t stand it. But I like it in an essay.
I read on. And then, in the seventeen-sixties, a decade of riots, protests, and boycotts, something changed. Jane’s whole family was sick. Her daughter Sally died; Jane took in Sally’s four young children; then two of them died, only to be followed by Jane’s husband and, not long after, by Jane’s favorite daughter. “The Lord Giveth & the Lord taketh away,” she wrote in her Book of Ages. “Oh may I never be so Rebelious as to Refuse Acquiesing & & saying from my hart Blessed be the Name of the Lord.” And then: she put down her pen. She never wrote in her Book of Ages again.
“Realy my Spirits are so much Broken with this Last Hevey Stroak of Provedenc that I am not capeble of Expresing my self,” she wrote to her brother. She did not think she could bear it. In the depth of her despair, she began to question Providence. Maybe her sons had failed not for lack of merit but because they were unable to overcome the disadvantage of an unsteadiness inherited from their father. Maybe her daughters and grandchildren had died because they were poor, and lived lives of squalor. Maybe not Providence but men in power—politics—determined the course of human events.
She wrote to her brother. She wanted to read “all the political Pieces” he had ever written. Could he please send them to her?
“I could as easily make a Collection for you of all the past Parings of my Nails,” he wrote back. He sent what he could.
She read, and I read.
She left home in 1775, after the battles of Lexington and Concord, when the British occupied Boston. For a while, she lived with her brother in Philadelphia. After he left for France, she spent the war as a fugitive. “I am Grown such a Vagrant,” she wrote him. When peace came—after he helped negotiate it—he returned to Philadelphia, and she to Boston.
He gave her a house in the North End. She loved it. “I have this Spring been new planking the yard,” she one day boasted, and “am Painting the Front of the House to make it look Decent that I may not be Ashamed when any Boddy Inquiers for Dr Franklins Sister.”
She knew, for the first time, contentment. Except that she was starved for company. “I Injoy all the Agreable conversation I can come at Properly,” she wrote to her brother, “but I find Litle, very Litle, Equal to that I have a Right to by Nature but am deprived of by Provedence.”
It was a shocking thing to say: that she had a right to intelligent conversation —a natural right—but that Providence had deprived her of it. Before the war, she had favored independence from Britain. After it, she found her own kind of freedom. Once she started writing down her opinions, she could scarcely stop.
“I can not find in my Hart to be Pleasd at your Accepting the Government of the State and Therefore have not congratulated you on it,” she wrote to her brother in 1786, when he accepted yet another political appointment. “I fear it will Fatigue you two much.”
“We have all of us Wisdom enough to judge what others ought to do, or not to do in the Management of their Affairs,” he wrote back. “Tis possible I might blame you as much if you were to accept the Offer of a young Husband.”
She let that pass. “I have two favours to Ask of you,” she begged him: “your New Alphabet of the English Language, and the Petition of the Letter Z.”
“My new Alphabet is in a printed Book of my Pieces, which I will send you the first Opportunity I have,” he answered. “The Petition of Z is enclos’d.”
In “The Petition of the Letter Z,” This is the ball landing that I tossed in the air with the letters “J” and “F,” in the opening … a satire about inequality, Z complains “That he is not only plac’d at the Tail of the Alphabet, when he had as much Right as any other to be at the Head but is, by the Injustice of his Enemies totally excluded from the Word WISE, and his Place injuriously filled by a little, hissing, crooked, serpentine, venomous Letter called S.” In another essay, Franklin proposed a new alphabet. Jane found it cunning, especially since, as she explained, “I am but won of the Thousands & thousands, that write on to old Age and cant Learn.”
“You need not be concern’d in writing to me about your bad Spelling,” he wrote back, “for in my Opinion as our Alphabet now Stands, the bad Spelling, or what is call’d so, is generally the best.” To illustrate, he told her a story: A gentleman receives a note that reads, “Not finding Brown at hom, I delivered your Meseg to his yf.” When both the gentleman and his wife are unable to decipher the note, they consult their chambermaid, Betty. “Why, says she, y. f spells Wife, what else can it spell?”
Jane loved that. “I think Sir & madam were deficient in Sagasity that they could not find out y f as well as Bety,” she wrote her brother, “but some times the Betys has the Brightst understanding.”
“How’s that book about Jane Franklin coming along?” my mother asked, every time I took her out. (We’d go to art museums, mostly. I’d race her around, in a wheelchair.) “Better,” I said. I love the interjections from your mama. Love how you use her to trace your own affinity or lack thereof for writing about Jane…..
When Jane was seventy-four, she read a book called “Four Dissertations,” written by Richard Price, a Welsh clergyman and political radical. The first dissertation was called “On Providence.” One objection to the idea that everything in life is fated by Providence, Price wrote, is the failure to thrive: “Many perish in the womb,” and even more “are nipped in their bloom.” An elm produces three hundred and thirty thousand seeds a year, but very few of those seeds ever grow into trees. A spider lays as many as six hundred eggs, and yet very few grow into spiders. So, too, for humans: “Thousands of Boyles, Clarks and Newtons have probably been lost to the world, and lived and died in ignorance and meanness, merely for want of being placed in favourable situations, and enjoying proper advantages.” No one dies for naught, Price believed, but that doesn’t mean suffering is fair, or can’t be protested.
At her desk, with Price’s “Four Dissertations” pressed open, Jane wrote a letter to her brother. “Dr Price thinks Thousand of Boyles Clarks and Newtons have Probably been lost to the world,” she wrote. To this, she added an opinion of her own: “very few we know is Able to beat thro all Impedements and Arive to any Grat Degre of superiority in Understanding.”
Benjamin Franklin knew, and his sister knew, that very few ever beat through. Three hundred thousand seeds to make one elm. Six hundred eggs to make one spider. Of seventeen children of Josiah Franklin, how many? Very few. Nearly none. Only one. Or, possibly: two. SO powerful….
Benjamin Franklin died in 1790. He was eighty-four. Jane died four years later. She was eighty-three. You bring us now toward the close. Brilliant use of biography to underpin the trajectory of this piece. If she ever had a gravestone, it’s long since sunken underground. She believed in one truth, above all: “The most Insignificant creature on Earth may be made some use of in the scale of Beings.”
It wasn’t until last year, sitting by my father in a room in intensive care in a hospital in the town where he’d been born eighty-seven years before, that I realized I had waited too long to write the only book my mother ever wanted me to write. From this Instance, Reader, Be encouraged to Diligence in thy Calling.
We buried my father. My mother ordered a single gravestone, Such a poignant detail; four-handed piano again, with Jane’s gravestone above. engraved with both their names. I wrote as fast as I could. Meanwhile, I read my mother letters and told my mother stories. In a museum, I found a mourning ring Jane had owned; I told my mother about how, when no one was looking, I’d tried it on. (I didn’t tell her that it didn’t fit, and that I’d found this an incredible relief.) In a library not a dozen miles from Franklin Street, I found a long-lost portrait of Jane’s favorite granddaughter: another Jenny, age nine. I brought my mother a photograph. She looked, for a long time, into that little girl’s eyes. “She’s beautiful,” she said. She smiled. “I’m so glad you found her.” I love the way this line does so much work. Holds layers of meaning. Is that something you consciously look for? Yes, I look for that. I worry that it can be cheap, can be overdone. But my mother meant it that way, with each of those layers. I think that’s why this reads not as contrived but as, very simply, true. “That mother of yours,” my father used to say, shaking his head, besotted. He knew he could never live without her. I never knew—never saw, never in the least suspected—that she couldn’t live without him, either. But, after his death, she didn’t last out the year. Such heart-aching construction. She died at home, unexpectedly, and alone. She kept her paintbrushes in glass jars in my old bedroom. What are you telling us here? Why this particular detail? This circles back to the eulogy, writing the eulogy while wandering around her house the day after her death. I went into my old bedroom and there were those brushes. She always regretted that I never liked painting. She was also trapped in that house, the house from which she made sure I escaped. She took over my room. She pushed me out into the world. It’s unbearable. She was eighty-five.
I finished the last revisions. Too late for her to read it. I wrote the dedication.
Their youngest daughter. In filial regard. Places this stone. Magnificent. When did this closing sentence strike you? Writing it, it just came out. I write very fast, all at once, and in a sitting. It’s reading this sentence that I can’t bear.