Schiff Wins Washington Book Prize For Work On Franklin
Wednesday, May 24, 2006
Biographer Stacy Schiff has won the second annual George Washington Book Prize for "A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America" -- walking away with $50,000 and proving once again that the Founding Father industry is alive and well.
Walter Isaacson, one of three prize judges and himself a Benjamin Franklin biographer, praised Schiff's book yesterday as an unusual combination of "great spadework" and "literate narrative." Franklin scholar Gordon Wood, another judge, had earlier called it "a remarkably subtle and penetrating portrait."
Schiff, however, does not quite fit the profile of such repeat chroniclers of Founding Fatherhood as Wood, David McCullough and Joseph Ellis.
"We don't need another birth-to-death biography of Franklin," she said in an interview, explaining why she had narrowed her focus to the 8 1/2 years Franklin spent playing diplomat in France on behalf of his young nation. "This was really an adventure story."
It began with the 70-year-old Franklin stepping off the boat after "the most brutal voyage of his life." His task: persuading the Bourbon monarchy to support the fragile revolutionary republic in its war against Great Britain. To succeed, Schiff said, he needed to be "truly at the top of his form."
He was. American independence, arguably, was the result. "There are few moments in history," Schiff said, when you can so clearly see "a personality imprinting itself on events."
A couple of other things drew her to the story of Franklin in France. One was the relative freshness of the European archival material. It was "thrilling," she said, "to uncover 18th-century Franklin conversations for the first time."
The second was the opportunity to see a much-chronicled and self-chronicled man from a non-American perspective.
"A biographer is at a great advantage when he or she has the subject out of context," Schiff explained. On the international stage, with a multitude of different people recording their observations of Franklin, "it's easier to get the contours of his personality."
The Washington prize is a joint effort of Washington College in Chestertown, Md., the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in New York and the Mount Vernon Ladies Association. It was to be awarded last night at a Mount Vernon dinner featuring candlelit tours of the mansion and fireworks on the east lawn.
The two other finalists were "General George Washington: A Military Life," by Edward Lengel, and "Iron Tears: America's Battle for Freedom, Britain's Quagmire: 1775-1783," by Stanley Weintraub. The third judge was City University of New York historian Carol Berkin.
Schiff was not prepared to say yesterday what her next project would be -- and to judge from her track record, it would be hazardous to guess.
Her first biography, published in 1994, was of French aviator and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Her second, on Vladimir Nabokov's wife and close collaborator, Vera, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2000.