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It's All About the Benjamin

A student of "the subtle fluids": Philip Dray
Courtesy of Philip Dray

In the 18th century, people believed lightning to be the act of an angry God. Then came the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement that contended that human reason and natural science could explain certain phenomena--which is what Philip Dray has done in his latest book, Stealing God's Thunder: Benjamin Franklin's Lightning Rod and the Invention of America (Random House). (He'll read at 7:00 p.m. Thursday at the Bakken Museum in Minneapolis.)

Dray is a founding member of rock outsiders the Scene Is Now and co-author (with Seth Cagin) of We Are Not Afraid: The Murder of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi and Between Earth and Sky: How CFCs Changed Our World and Threatened the Ozone Layer. He was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America. I caught up with the Minneapolis native last week from his home in Brooklyn, where he lives with his wife, singer/songwriter Lianne Smith.


City Pages: To me, the book, and Franklin's life, is a testament to staying curious. That's also been your story: In your reportorial and writing life, you've gone after whatever has piqued your curiosity. How did that first foster itself in Minneapolis?


Philip Dray: When I was in Minneapolis, I took all the fiction-writing classes and workshops at the U [of M], and I was really into that. I did a little journalism here and there for the Daily, but at various times I would stop writing for years on end and not do anything. I sort of stumbled into writing a book about film with a friend, and then the experience of researching and writing We Are Not Afraid was so cool that I realized all the juice I wanted to get out of writing novels, I could get out of working on nonfiction.


CP: When you think about the times we're living in, in some ways there's no better time to be doing nonfiction work.


Dray: I always think about that Minutemen song, "I'm always trying to talk to girls, but I can't stop thinking about World War III." I think it's great that people can write novels. But all the works I've done have this quality that they're about something deep that you can't really answer--like race, or the fate of the world, or the Franklin book, which is about God and nature. I need that to keep me going on it, to pull me in.


CP: What world events were going on during your writing and research that maybe dovetailed with Franklin's story at the dawn of America?


Dray: In a way, this is my 9/11 book. It just so happens that right around the time it happened, I was reading this biography of Franklin from the '30s. I found him to be such a comforting presence, because his life was not easy, and America was going through this incredibly turbulent time. And yet he always just sailed through--constantly in control, kept his sense of humor, sort of detached.

When I read about how people didn't like this idea of him taking lightning away from God, it sort of appealed to me because of all the hysteria going on post-9/11 about Christians and the whole renascent medievalism. I found all that very disturbing. So here was Franklin, who was banishing superstition and charging around with his lightning rod, and I just found it to be a wonderful story.


CP: It very much is a book about America then and now, because of the revolution or rebirth at hand now. You can substitute the lightning rod for the internet, or whatever.


Dray: Or stem cell research, or global warming, or intelligent design. Yeah. It's amazing, really, how these issues seem so current.


CP: Are there any modern figures who remind you of Franklin?


Dray: Someone like Garrison Keillor--a sort of Mark Twain-like figure. Franklin definitely had that side. He was a wonderful wit, and the king of understatement and mild sarcasm and satire. Obviously, Garrison Keillor is no diplomat or scientist or these other roles that Franklin filled; we've been in an age of specialization for so long that it's hard to think of someone who would be allowed to have that rounded kind of a life.

If you combine Garrison Keillor and Bill Gates and Jimmy Carter, you'd have a Franklin-like character. So much was wide open. It's not like today, where you have to have a Ph.D. and work in a laboratory. Everybody was stepping out of their roles to get involved in this age of discovery, and Franklin was ahead of everyone in terms of being curious about what he called "the subtle fluids"--wind, water currents, electricity, anything that had energy but no mass.


CP: What do you think Franklin's reaction would be to America at the moment?


Dray: Franklin was an atheistic deist. The deists believe that a divine force had created the world and basically split, leaving reason as what man had to work with. I think that in some ways he would have been distressed to think that, so many years after his own life, that these kinds of issues would still even be debated. I think he would be impatient with those people who would like to think that creationism is a science. He would have had no trouble with that distinction.

On the other hand, even though Franklin was a very optimistic person, he was sort of cynical in that he didn't place a lot of faith in mankind. There's that famous quote of his, when the Constitution was signed, he said something like, "Well, this is a great thing, but eventually it will end up in despotism, because the people don't have what it takes to maintain the beautiful government like the one we've given them."

He was no fool. He knew it was just human nature. I think he'd be upset, because that is what he feared--that people, out of laziness, would allow people to come into power and authority that were not the right people. So I think he would be concerned, if not totally surprised.


Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or [email protected]

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