Forever Franklin

 

Not long after we moved back to Philadelphia (nearly a decade ago now), we were driving on the Vine Street Expressway when my wife glanced up at one of the overpasses and caught sight of what appeared to be an intriguing modern sculpture of maybe a jellyfish or an octopus. A few days later, we were on the overpass and she got a better view. “Oh,” she said with weary disappointment, “it’s Franklin.” The sage’s face and spectacles were outlined, like a three-dimensional pencil sketch, in strips of shiny metal; what had looked from below like tentacles turned out to be his hair.

Franklin’s omnipresence in Philadelphia was one of several sore points for Carole as she adjusted to leaving Brooklyn, where we’d lived for the previous 10 years and where she was born. I had to admit, though, she had a point. Growing up or living here, it can seem as if Franklin built the place single-handedly, the only mystery being why it’s William Penn, and not Ben, on top of City Hall.

Back in 1906, Old Penn (as we were called until 1918) reported on the festivities surrounding Franklin’s 200th birthday, which included four days of events in April (“Mid-January is so inappropriate to a fitting celebration”) sponsored by the University and the American Philosophical Society with $20,000 in funding from the state of Pennsylvania. Featured were addresses on Franklin as “statesman and diplomatist,” “printer and philosopher,” and “citizen and philanthropist,” and on his researches into electricity. At one ceremony, the University awarded honorary degrees to King Edward VII (in absentia) and “inventor and investigator” Guglielmo Marconi, among others. (Weirdly, thinking of that metal sculpture, one speaker’s oration on Franklin included reference to his “floating hair.”)

My wife perhaps excepted, a century later most of us still can’t get enough of Franklin, as shown by the continued outpouring of biographies and other studies of his life and thought—and Philadelphia is again leading the way to celebrate his 300th birthday. Penn is among several city organizations involved in the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary consortium, whose projects, supported by a $4 million gift from the Pew Charitable Trusts, “will form the official national celebration for America’s first founding father to reach 300,” according to its website (www.benfranklin300.org).

In addition to numerous individual events at Penn and elsewhere, the centerpiece of the celebration is “Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World,” an exhibition of Franklin materials—the largest ever—that opened in December at the National Constitution Center. Freelance cultural reporter Julia M. Klein interviews curator Page Talbott Gr’80 and takes a preliminary walk-through of the exhibition in “Stuff of Legend,” which also includes images of a dozen or so of the more than 250 artifacts donated by Penn’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library and others.

Franklin has appeared many times and in many guises in the Gazette. For this issue’s cover, we called on Jon Sarkin C’75, who was profiled here some years back [“Artist Unleashed,” May 1997]; an obsessive, instinctual artist, he responded with multiple images of Franklin. One appears as the cover, and more can be seen on our back-page “Window” and our website (www.upenn.edu/gazette), along with Sarkin’s ruminations on the nature of Franklin’s genius.

We also offer our annual photo essay on Homecoming, which includes the citations for this year’s Alumni Awards of Merit. Congratulations to all the winners. For many years these awards, Penn Alumni’s highest honor, were given on Founder’s Day, on or around Franklin’s birthday in January—until, that is, present day decisionmakers remembered what they knew about Philadelphia weather in 1906.

—John Prendergast C’80


©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 01/05/06

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