23 June 2015

Enjoyable and Informative, but with a flawed premise — "The Printer and the Preacher" Book Review

My review is fairly critical of Peterson's book, The Printer and the Preacher. However, let me state at the beginning, that I enjoyed the book a lot, even with all the things that I find wrong with it. If I ignore the fact that I think Peterson failed to demonstrate his premise that a friendship between Franklin and Whitefield "invented America", he does a good job of showing how these two men exerted a powerful influence on the unique character of the emerging American nation. Many of these character traits have continued into the 21st century. They may well have been the most influential pre-Revolutionary War figures in this young, not-yet country. So, read the book for this perspective.

The best part of the book is the final chapter, "Special Effects". With a little background information on both Franklin and Whitefield, this chapter could have been published as an article. In this chapter, Peterson talks about how each influenced and affected the other. He also summarizes the many ways that each man impacted the forming character of the new nation. As Peterson says in this chapter, "We are George and Ben."

The timelines that Peterson included at the end of the book are also helpful. He includes 3 timelines: Before They Met, George Whitefield's Amazing American Tour (1739-41), and Encounters (listing the known and possible meetings and correspondence of George and Ben).

Peterson's premise, that the friendship between Franklin and Whitefield invented America, is quite bold … and, frankly, I think he failed to prove it. First, I wonder how much of a friendship there really was. It seems, from Peterson's book, that the two men were certainly acquaintances and business partners. This was, as Peterson points out in the final chapter, a long-lasting relationship. However, I don't think the book supports the kind of deep friendship that the subtitle postulates. For example, at one point, Peterson mentions that both Whitefield and Franklin were in England at the same time, but over a period of 6 years, they never once saw each other or talked to each other or wrote to each other or even acknowledged in their respective memoirs that the other was close. In other places, Peterson uses speculation to bolster his claim of an "inventing friendship" and even about other events or relationships. I'm not a fan of biographies that make excessive use of speculation and this is one (speculative biographies).

Second, both men embodied the unique characteristics of this country-in-the-making — independence, egalitarianism, a fervor for making the budding nation the best it could be, pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps. Each, on his own, was one of the most powerful of positive influences among the colonies as the colonies sometimes inched and sometimes hurtled toward independence. However, to say that their friendship invented America is, at best, speculation. Franklin and Whitefield were certainly good for each other — they challenged, supported, and, in their own ways, promoted each other. They were good for the emerging country as they sought to make America a good nation. It's just that their friendship didn't do that.

There are some odd mistakes in the book that an editor should have caught. These are two examples: 1962 saw the start of the Salem witch trials (that should be 1692); [Franklin] had established a newspaper as…a "fifth estate"… (the mainstream press is generally considered to be the' fourth estate').

Finally, Peterson's writing style sometimes becomes extremely informal in ways that are normal for oral communication but feel out of place for a biography. For example, This was not a marketing gimmick. Well, it was, but he was backing up the image… and If you view advertising as proud and/or deceptive, you’ll have a problem with this…

If you, like me, enjoy reading about the formation of the American republic, then this is a good gook to read.

(DISCLAIMER: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher as a review copy as a part of their BookLook Bloggers programme. As a participant in this programme, I am free to write the review I think the book deserves and receive no compensation other than continued participation in the programme — I don't even get a kickback if you click on the book title, go to Amazon, and buy the book.)