A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America

Paperback | January 10, 2006

byStacy Schiff

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In this dazzling work of history, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author follows Benjamin Franklin to France for the crowning achievement of his career

"In December of 1776 a small boat delivered an old man to France." So begins an enthralling narrative account of how Benjamin Franklin--seventy years old, without any diplomatic training, and possessed of the most rudimentary French--convinced France, an absolute monarchy, to underwrite America's experiment in democracy.

When Franklin stepped onto French soil, he well understood he was embarking on the greatest gamble of his career. By virtue of fame, charisma, and ingenuity, Franklin outmaneuvered British spies, French informers, and hostile colleagues; engineered the Franco-American alliance of 1778; and helped to negotiate the peace of 1783. The eight-year French mission stands not only as Franklin's most vital service to his country but as the most revealing of the man.

In A Great Improvisation, Stacy Schiff draws from new and little-known sources to illuminate the least-explored part of Franklin's life. Here is an unfamiliar, unforgettable chapter of the Revolution, a rousing tale of American infighting, and the treacherous backroom dealings at Versailles that would propel George Washington from near decimation at Valley Forge to victory at Yorktown. From these pages emerges a particularly human and yet fiercely determined Founding Father, as well as a profound sense of how fragile, improvisational, and international was our country's bid for independence.

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From the Publisher

In this dazzling work of history, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author follows Benjamin Franklin to France for the crowning achievement of his career"In December of 1776 a small boat delivered an old man to France." So begins an enthralling narrative account of how Benjamin Franklin--seventy years old, without any diplomatic training, and p...

Stacy Schiff is the author of Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), which won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 2000, and Saint-Exupery, which was a finalist for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize. Schiff's work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, and The Times Literary Supplement. She has received fell...

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:528 pages, 8.16 × 5.53 × 0.96 inPublished:January 10, 2006Publisher:Henry Holt and Co.Language:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0805080090

ISBN - 13:9780805080094

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Read from the Book

From A Great Improvisation:Typically after an ocean crossing Franklin's eyes brimmed with tears at the sight of land; he had just withstood the most brutal voyage of his life. For thirty days he had pitched about violently on the wintry Atlantic, in a cramped cabin and under unremittingly dark skies. He was left with barely the strength to stand, but was to cause a sensation. Even his enemies conceded that he touched down in France like a meteor. Among American arrivals, only Charles Lindbergh could be said to have met with equal rapture, the difference being that Lindbergh was not a celebrity until he landed in Paris. At the time he set foot on French soil Benjamin Franklin was among the most famous men in the world. It was his country that was the great unknown. America was six months old; Franklin seventy years her senior. And the fate of that infant republic was, to a significant extent, in his hands.

Editorial Reviews

"In sparkling prose, burnished to a high gloss, Stacy Schiff tells the tale of Benjamin Franklin in Paris with piquant humor, outrageous anecdotes worthy of the finest French farce, and a wealth of lapidary observations. Her Paris unfolds as a glittering carnival of spies, rogues, frauds, and flawed reformers, eccentric nobility and perpetually squabbling American diplomats. Towering above all is the protean figure of Franklin, an improbable compound of wit, cunning, hypocrisy, courage, and tireless devotion to his country. C'est magnifique!" -Ron Chernow, author of Alexander Hamilton"This is a book to savor. Every page has some new nugget of insight, or some graceful turn of phrase that generates a verbal airburst over the most psychologically agile American of his time, perhaps of all time. Schiff has given a genuine jolt to the recent surge of interest in Franklin, along the way demonstrating why she is generally regarded as one of the most gifted storytellers writing today." -Joseph J. Ellis, author of Founding Brothers and His Excellency: George Washington"What a brilliant book. A Great Improvisation pays tribute to the extraordinary love affair between monarchist France and the republican Benjamin Franklin. Their child was America, conceived at home and nurtured into maturity by France. It is a story full of intrigue, jealousy and passion. But ultimately it is a celebration of one American's love for his country. Stacy Schiff has written a masterpiece, capturing a fleeting moment when the stars aligned between Congress and Versailles. " -Amanda Foreman, Author of Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire"Stacy Schiff's extensive scholarship, her eye for the colorful detail, and her lively wit combine to bring alive -- in full dress and in an absorbing narrative -- the cast of statesmen, adventurers, spies, courtiers, patriots and con men who have a part in the story of Benjamin Franklin's negotiations for American independence, and to fix among them America's greatest diplomat, winning his way (and America's) in a style of calculated disarray. An extraordinary book." -Edmund S. Morgan, author of Benjamin Franklin"This remarkable book breaks new ground. Stacy Schiff has dug deep into the archives of France (no mean feat!) and brought up a motherlode of gems which, polished by her wit, illuminate the doublespeak of the ambassadorial world, as well as the ferocious backbiting among the colonial envoys. From this maelstrom emerges Franklin, inventing the American foreign service as he had figured out electricity, bifocals, a new stove, the glass armonica -- step by cautious step." -Claude-Anne Lopez, Author of Mon Cher Papa: Franklin and the Ladies of Paris