Jill Lepore, Ben Franklin and his Sister, and an Invitation to an Evening at Villanova University

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

On December 6, 2011, starting at 7 PM, Jill Lepore will join hundreds of students, faculty members, and university neighbors in the Villanova Room of the Connelly Center. I'm extremely proud that Dr. Lepore represents the third speaker in The Lore Kephart '86 Distinguished Historians Lecture Series, an annual event that my father created in memory of my mother, who graduated in the top of her Villanova University class following a college career that was not initiated until she had raised her three children.

Dr. Lepore's talk is titled "Poor Jane's Almanac: The Life and Opinions of Benjamin Franklin's Sister," with the further subtitle: "an 18th century tale of two Americas."  We get some hint of the fascinating content to come in this New York Times op-ed piece, which appeared on April 23, 2011.  I am excerpting at length, and I hope to be forgiven:
Franklin, who’s on the $100 bill, was the youngest of 10 sons. Nowhere on any legal tender is his sister Jane, the youngest of seven daughters; she never traveled the way to wealth. He was born in 1706, she in 1712. Their father was a Boston candle-maker, scraping by. Massachusetts’ Poor Law required teaching boys to write; the mandate for girls ended at reading. Benny went to school for just two years; Jenny never went at all.

Their lives tell an 18th-century tale of two Americas. Against poverty and ignorance, Franklin prevailed; his sister did not.

At 17, he ran away from home. At 15, she married: she was probably pregnant, as were, at the time, a third of all brides. She and her brother wrote to each other all their lives: they were each other’s dearest friends. (He wrote more letters to her than to anyone.) His letters are learned, warm, funny, delightful; hers are misspelled, fretful and full of sorrow. “Nothing but troble can you her from me,” she warned. It’s extraordinary that she could write at all.

“I have such a Poor Fackulty at making Leters,” she confessed.

He would have none of it. “Is there not a little Affectation in your Apology for the Incorrectness of your Writing?” he teased. “Perhaps it is rather fishing for commendation. You write better, in my Opinion, than most American Women.” He was, sadly, right.

She had one child after another; her husband, a saddler named Edward Mecom, grew ill, and may have lost his mind, as, most certainly, did two of her sons. She struggled, and failed, to keep them out of debtors’ prison, the almshouse, asylums. She took in boarders; she sewed bonnets. She had not a moment’s rest.

And still, she thirsted for knowledge. “I Read as much as I Dare,” she confided to her brother. She once asked him for a copy of “all the Political pieces” he had ever written. “I could as easily make a collection for you of all the past parings of my nails,” he joked. He sent her what he could; she read it all. But there was no way out. 
Dr. Lepore, whose work in The New Yorker always thrills me and whose mind seems to track one curiosity after the other—Charles Dickens, Planned Parenthood, the Tea Party, Stuart Little, (she's even got a co-authored novel to her name)—is the David Woods Kemper '41 Professor of American history at Harvard University.  She follows Pulitzer Prize winning James McPherson and the utterly engaging Andrew Bacevich as a Distinguished speaker in the series.

This event is free and open to the public, but registration is recommended, given the large turnout we are blessed with each year.  Here, again, are the facts:

Jill Lepore, PhD
Poor Jane's Almanac: The Life and Opinions of Benjamin Franklin's Sister
Tuesday, December 6, 2011
7 PM
Villanova Room, Connelly Center

I hope to see you there.  I'll be in the front along with family and friends.

(The photo, by the way, is in honor of the fact that Benjamin Franklin was key among those early environmentalists who fought to preserve the Schuylkill and her drinking water.)


Melissa Sarno said...

This (and the rest of the piece) is absolutely fascinating! The lecture series sounds like a wonderful way to honor your mother's memory.

Serena said...

Wonderful insight into a historical person I did not know much about. We always heard about Benny in School up in Mass., but never about his other family members. Sadly, we were taught about him in a vacuum and did not know of his large family.

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