Vol. 19, No. 29

May 4, 2000

Early American scholar receives national recognition

J. A. Leo Lemay, H. F. du Pont Winterthur Professor of English Literature, was named Honored Scholar of Early American Literature by the Modern Language Association's Division of American Literature to 1800, at the MLA December annual meeting in Chicago.

The tribute accompanying the award just appeared in the journal Early American Literature. The citation begins by saying that Lemay's "industry as a scholar" and the "scope of his enterprise resembles that of the pioneers [of studying American literature} who believed...they were free to undertake every sort of task."

A nationally recognized specialist in early American literature, Lemay was cited as the "the most wide-ranging explorer of the archive of British American letters" from 1700-1770, who supplied "exemplary editions" of some of his discoveries and assembled "important bibliographies of 18th-century newspaper and periodical poetry and colonial southern letters."

The tribute continues by saying Lemay has "written histories of a host of literary scenes, composed important critical studies of popular literary genres, explored the rise of natural science in North America," has contributed to the study of early American humor and is writing "what promises to become the definitive biography of Benjamin Franklin's life and career."

Although many scholars trace American culture predominantly to the influence of the Puritans, Lemay contends that the South was the dominant influence up until the Civil War. Among his works in this area are his books Men of Letters in Colonial Maryland and The American Dream of Captain John Smith. According to the tribute, Lemay's portrait of Smith invoked an idealist who developed a "practical scheme of settlement permitting all the people rather than a select few from England a possibility of material self-betterment and personal autonomy in the New World."

According to Lemay's companion book, Did Pocahontas Save Captain John Smith?, the answer is she probably did. Another book, Robert Bolling Woos Ann Miller, Love and Courtship in Colonial Virginia, is about a descendant of Pocahontas.

The central focus, however, of Lemay's research and writing is Benjamin Franklin. He first became interested in him when he wrote his master's thesis, Ebenezer Kinnersley, Franklin's Friend, which was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.

His other publications about Franklin include The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin: A Genetic Text (1981), Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography: An Authoritative Text (1986), both with coeditor P.M. Zall; The Canon of Benjamin Franklin 1722-1776: New Attributions and Reconsiderations, published by the University of Delaware Press in 1986; and Writings/Benjamin Franklin, which was issued by the Library of America in celebration of the bicentennial of the Constitution in 1987. Lemay also has edited collections of essays on Franklin, including The Oldest Revolutionary: Essays on Benjamin Franklin in 1976 and Reappraising Benjamin Franklin: A Bicentennial Perspective, published by the University of Delaware Press in 1993.

Currently, Lemay is involved in writing a seven-volume biography of the multifaceted, enterprising and talented scientist, businessman, inventor, politician and statesman. He is approximately one-third of the way through the project.

He is basing the written biography on Benjamin Franklin: A Documentary History which he has assembled and written and which is available on the web at [http://www.english.udel.edu/lemay/franklin/]. The documentary history, which has an introduction and is illustrated with portraits of Franklin from his childhood through his the last years of his life, is divided chronologically with the headings–Printer, 1657-1730; Rising Citizen, 1731-1747; Soldier, Scientist and Politician, 1748-1757; American, 1758-1764, Unofficial Ambassador to England, 1765-1775; The Oldest Revolutionary, 1776-1785; and Elder Statesman, 1786-1790.

By clicking on to the documentary history, one can learn what Franklin was doing during a given year. For instance, under "Soldier, Scientist and Politician," during 1757, Franklin, at the age of 51, went to England. On the voyage, he completed the preface to Poor Richard's Almanac. In England, he met with Lord Grenville, who stated the king was the supreme legislator in colonies, and also with Richard and Thomas Penn. On a personal side, Franklin lodged with widow Margaret Stevenson and suffered from a cold, headaches and dizziness. (Some of the later years of Franklin's life are still to be completed on the database.)

Lemay characterizes Franklin as an idealist with a practical and pragmatic side to his personality. His meticulous accounts during his earlier years show his business acumen. When he was postmaster general until the British fired him in 1773, the post office was in the black, which was never the case before or since, Lemay said. On the other hand, Franklin never profited from such inventions as the Franklin stove or the lightning rod–considering these inventions were for the common good. He was public spirited, helping to found a library, a scientific institution, the University of Pennsylvania and a fire company. Throughout his career, Franklin was a "friend to humankind," Lemay concluded.

A graduate of the University of Maryland where he also received his master's degree, Lemay has a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania, served on the faculty at the University of California at Los Angeles before coming to the University in 1977.

–Sue Moncure