The Search for Lost History

Jane Franklin, once lost, is now found. But is she only interesting to us because she’s Ben’s sister?

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It’s a cold autumn morning on location at Pennsbury Manor, William Penn’s estate on the Delaware River above Philadelphia. We are shooting reenactment scenes of the 17th and 18th centuries for the sixth and seventh episodes of the film documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment.” The light — starry blue then pink then orange — awakens the fields and buildings here, WPA recreations circa 1938 that will serve as the various raw tableaux for uncertain meetings among Swedish settlers, Lenape, Quakers, and Africans.  

  • Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore. 464 pages. Knopf. $27.95.

Inside the site’s welcome center, dozens of actors in quiet-colored costumes eat egg and cheese sandwiches under fluorescent light, awaiting their call to the frost wet field or meetinghouse doorway. One after the next, over two days, events from 1639 — Swede Peter Rambo encountering African Anthony Swarz at the river’s edge — to 1683 — William Penn running in a race with Lenape — to 1720 — the slave Alice witnessing a group of German immigrants (probably not Quaker abolitionist types) entering the city from the wharf — will be reimagined and recreated.

Our aim is to depict the wariness, confusion, and both good will and mistrust (and sometimes hostility) that characterized these interactions and the progression of events that within a century decimated the natural world and the native people of the region while a new kind of city was being invented. But as filmmakers — I’m the project’s senior script writer and editor — perhaps this is our most historically uncertain ground: the scenes we’ve tendered are loose representations of a spotty historical record.

We’re improvising. About to shoot a scene of slaves cavorting in a city square, we’ll focus the camera on Alice, who will become a subject of the film. Why her? Because born in 1686 she lived 116 years, experiencing parts of three centuries — and critically she liked to talk about her life. As a teen, she lit William Penn’s pipe; in middle age, still a slave, she would witness the rise of Benjamin Franklin. As a free woman late in life, she allowed historians to record her memories, but they neglected to learn the particularities of her life. Her historical remains were slender indeed — perhaps though her myth is about to grow.

All history-tellers are forced to make choices, but ours are acute: the television episodes we’re making are only 26 minutes long. Whose stories do we include? Do we focus primarily on the makers and doers of things? Those people — almost always rich white men — tend to leave the most complete record. In a panoramic history, it’s impossible to ignore them. Can we tell a larger narrative through the prosaic lives of regular people? What do diverse contemporary audiences want?

These are among the questions at the very heart of historian Jill Lepore’s finely etched Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin (Knopf), on the youngest sister of Benjamin Franklin. The book has been short-listed for the 2013 National Book Award. “I wanted to write a history from the Reformation through the American Revolution by telling the story of a single life,” says Lepore in the book’s appendix, “using this most ordinary of lives to offer a history of history and to explain how history is written: from what remains of the lives of the great, the bad, and, not as often, the good.”

Jane then is a kind of literate Alice, who was taught to read. “The first lesson of childhood was submission. The second was reading,” says Lepore, of the custom of early New England. By virtue of her “startling, brilliant” older brother, Jane also knew how to write, fairly unusual at a time when three of five women in New England couldn’t sign their names. “It was cruel, in its kindness,” Lepore says. “Because when he left, the lessons ended.” His horizon was limitless, hers frustratingly confined by the four walls of a house on Union Street in Boston called the Blue Ball.

Like Alice, Jane, who died in 1794, left few remains. Starting research, Lepore imagined her book would be a “meditation on the silence of the archives.” The first letter of Jane’s to survive was written in 1758, when she was 46 (Jane saved most of her brother’s letters to her so the other half of the correspondence survived). Jane married an incompetent man, Peter Mecom, who became well-acquainted with debtor’s prison. “While Jane’s brother printed money,” writes Lepore, “her husband fell into debt.” Jane’s life here is refracted in Ben’s — and Ben’s in Jane’s — so that her life becomes a vital new lens on Franklin, whose voice we encounter as if anew.

Worried as she worked on Book of Ages that Franklin’s story would overpower his sister’s, Lepore wanted Jane to stand on her own, worthy of history (it was through Jane’s life that Lepore was able to see her own mother anew, she wrote in the New Yorker). During Ben and Jane’s lifetimes, she notes, “history and fiction split. Benjamin Franklin’s life entered the annals of history; lives like his sister’s became the subject of fiction. Histories of great men, novels of little women.” Lepore’s project is to restore Jane, herself an autodidact, resilient and opinionated, to history.

In the last three decades particularly, historians have sought new ways of seeing early America. My bookshelf is indeed filled with titles like Billy Smith’s The “Lower Sort:” Philadelphia’s Laboring People, 1750-1800, Gary Nash’s Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, and Claire Lyons’ Sex among the Rabble: An Intimate History of Gender and Power in the Age of Revolution, Philadelphia, 1730-1830. Like Book of Ages, each of these books gives us new subjects through which we can reread what we think are familiar events. And these subjects are themselves richly alive and vital, each of them opening up new avenues for inquiry into the development of the nation.

Jane’s voice, as it emerges in these pages, is “gabby, frank, and vexed.” She evolves from being sharply provincial and burdened by circumstance to being eager later in life to understand her brother’s intellectual world. She is proud of him, seemingly the only male in her life not destined to failure. But all this, even the tenacious desire to read and interpret texts sent by Ben, is personal: very little of her story beyond her intimate experience of the British occupation of Boston has impact beyond her family sphere. Could it be that Jane is only interesting to us because she’s the sister of Ben?

Yet certainly not all 18th-century women operated in this strictly private realm. A useful comparison may be the Philadelphia woman Anne Parrish. Born mid-century to a Quaker merchant’s family, Parrish was imbued with a spirit of social justice. As much forgotten as Jane Franklin, Parrish, who died at the turn of the century, left few remains. But what we do know of her was derived mostly from the minutes of the institutions she founded in response to the devastating yellow fever epidemic that struck Philadelphia, then the nation’s capital, in 1793: several schools and a work training society, The House of Industry, for indigent women and orphans that endured into 20th century. Indeed, as Jane was dying, Anne was blossoming. During the epidemic itself, Anne struggled with illness and death of family members from yellow fever. She nevertheless stayed in the city and set to the healing. All this made her an excellent subject in the second episode of “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment.” Anne was both morally heroic and visionary and an example of the way the city’s civic culture was developing in the late 18th century. Anne’s schools and societies, we noted in our film, became models for the way Philadelphians would think about social reform.

To her 267 page book, Lepore appends about 150 pages of footnotes, notes on research methods, a Franklin family genealogy, a chart of letters between brother and sister, an exegesis on the way 19th-century writer Jared Sparks handled Jane’s archive, and a detailed account of Jane’s library, all in service of, she says, explaining and demonstrating “how history is written.” It’s as if Lepore wants to muzzle the silence of the archives with weighty proof of Jane’s existence. Jane, she tends to think, matters because she matters. She needn’t have left her fingerprints on the public sphere. “If it were possible to read the histories of those who are doomed to have no histories, we should then perceive the unjust prodigality of our sympathy,” Lepore says (the italics hers).

What would it mean to write the history of an age not only from what has been saved but also from what has been lost? What would it mean to write a history concerned not only with the lives of the famous but also with the lives of the obscure?

Jane, like Anne and like Alice, was lost. “I searched for what there was to find,” Lepore says, of her initial inquiries into the life of Jane. “Then I pondered its insufficiency.” The pondering, of course, led to this most inventive project to recreate a quiet, distant, obscure life in the shadow, or out of the shadow, of a towering one. It may in fact be worthy history if history is to account for everyone. In any case, it’s a work of astounding improvisation to make such a slender figure alive again. • 8 November 2013

Nathaniel Popkin‘s latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard. He is also the author of Song of the City, and The Possible City, and is co-editor of the Hidden City Daily and co-producer and senior writer and editor of the documentary “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment.” Most of his work can be found at nathanielpopkin.net

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