I’ll show slides, spin yarns, and answer questions about “Benjamin Franklin’s Last Bet” (an Amazon Editor’s Pick in History!) at the following venues/links starting next week:
**Tuesday 4/12: The American Philosophical Society, 6-7 p.m. Eastern. https://www.amphilsoc.org/events/benjamin-franklins-last-bet
**Thursday 4/14: The National Archives, 1-2 p.m. Eastern. https://museum.archives.gov/events/75277
**Tuesday 4/19: The Commonwealth Club, 3 p.m. Pacific/6 p.m. Eastern. https://www.commonwealthclub.org/events/2022-04-19/benjamin-franklins-last-bet
**Monday 4/25: The Massachusetts Historical Society, 6 p.m. Eastern. https://www.masshist.org/events/benjamin-franklins-last-bet
Benjamin Franklin’s Last Bet: The Favorite Founder’s Divisive Death, Enduring Afterlife, and Blueprint for American Prosperity
Michael Meyer. Mariner, $28.99 (368p) ISBN 978-1-328-56889-2
Historian Meyer (Last Days of Old Beijing) takes an engrossing look at a lesser-known aspect of Benjamin Franklin’s legacy. Shortly before his death in 1790, Franklin added a codicil to his will allocating £1,000 (equivalent to $133,000 today) each to Boston and Philadelphia, requiring that the money be used to distribute low-interest loans to young, married tradesmen. Drawing on a plan devised by a French mathematician, Franklin projected that with compound interest and careful management, the funds would grow to more than $17 million each by the bicentennial of his death, at which point they were to be “cashed out and spent on civic improvements.” Meyer incorporates intriguing tidbits from Franklin’s biography into the history of the funds, which grew at different rates in Boston and Philadelphia. (The entirety of the Boston fund went to the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology in 1994; the Philadelphia Foundation continues to manage its Franklin Trust Funds.) In the 20th century, Boston trustees voted to include medical students in the loan scheme, while Pennsylvania activist Walter Lyon lobbied for allocations toward environmental conservation. Meyer praises Franklin’s foresight and belief in skilled labor and laments that today, apprenticeship programs lag far behind four-year universities. Enriched by vivid character sketches and lucid explanations of financial and policy matters, this is an entertaining examination of how a wise investment pays off. Agent: Georges Borchardt, Georges Borchardt Inc. (Apr.)
Benjamin Franklin’s Last Bet comes out on April 12. Elated to be invited to show slides and tell stories at the following venerable institutions. Links to come.
American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia: April 12, 6pm EST
National Archives, Washington, D.C.: April 14, 1pm EST
Commonwealth Club, San Francisco: April 19, 3pm PST/6pm EST
Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston: April 25, 6pm EST
It’s been a mental boon being welcomed as a Visiting Scholar at
Hogwarts the University of Oxford’s Wolfson College, home to its Centre for Life-Writing. The program was founded by Dame Hermione Lee, whose groundbreaking biography of Virginia Woolf I often consulted while writing Benjamin Franklin’s Last Bet, wondering “How did she *do* that?” (Painters sit in museums tracing the brushstrokes of Masters; writers pull books from the shelf.) My time in the UK has been spent researching a book about the scandalous Victorian London trial of a woman who willfully published a birth control pamphlet, and defended herself before the Crown on charges of obscenity.
In other news, the galleys/Advanced Reading Copies of Benjamin Franklin’s Last Bet have arrived, and the design and printing would make the book’s namesake proud. If you or anyone you know would like a copy for review, please send me an email.
Working with Mariner/HarperCollins on the design of my forthcoming book has been a dream. You can see the cover here. The endpapers will reproduce pages from Franklin’s will, the first time since their 1790 filing that they have been allowed to be reproduced in print. Thanks to the Philadelphia Register of Wills for granting permission. This act of grace almost makes up for the Eagles’ defeat of the Vikings in the NFC title game . . . Almost. It still hurts.
Today few readers have heard of Chiang Yee, the expatriate Chinese painter and writer who — among other feats — coined the still-used Chinese name for Coca-Cola, winning a contest and some much-needed money at a time when a Blitz bomb destroyed his rented Hampstead home. Chiang had chucked an official post in Republican China and sailed to England, where Puyi’s English tutor helped get him a job teaching at the University in London. A trip to the Lakes District spawned a series of captioned watercolors, which led to a book, and then a series of best-selling and well-reviewed travelogues documenting his flaneur character The Silent Traveller’s socially-distant observations of Edinburgh, Paris, Boston, San Francisco and other Western cities, including New York. Here’s a link to my fan letter to this book. Originally written for the New York Times Book Review, and then, orphaned, accepted by the New Yorker‘s website, it eventually landed at Pulitzer-winner and longtime China correspondent David Barboza’s new publication The Wire China, which is worth checking out, and not only for its fine taste in books.
Here’s the link to a Travel Writing World podcast celebrating what would have been Bruce Chatwin’s 80th birthday, featuring myself with Nicholas Shakespeare, Colin Thubron, Sara Wheeler, and Susannah Clapp. I named In Manchuria after Chatwin’s seminal In Patagonia, much to the publisher’s — probably correct — chagrin. Pete Hessler’s original blurb urged potential buyers: “If you only read one book about Manchuria this year, let it be this one.” Good one.
The link to my piece on Peace Corps’ sudden and silent exit from China is in the Wall Street Journal here.
Listen to my fellow RPCV Rob Schmitz’s commentary on All Things Considered here.
See my fellow RPCV Peter Hessler’s New Yorker piece on the program’s termination here.
In light of the Peace Corps’ (very quiet) decision to terminate its China program, here’s a New York Times piece I wrote a few years ago recalling the 1958 novel The Ugly American, and how John F. Kennedy sent copies of the book to all of his Senate colleagues. As president, Kennedy proposed the Peace Corps, based largely on the authors’ recommendation. The China program cost $4.1 million in 2019, a little over 1 percent of Peace Corps’ total budget. The United States spends $300 million annually on its military bands.
Elated to be here, finishing Benjamin Franklin’s Last Bet. What a country! In China, this is called divorcing yourself from the masses . . .
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