As Mormons, we tend to clap our hands with delight when we discover new texts by old authors that seem compatible with our theology. Such was my reaction when I found Benjamin Franklin’s charming piece of epistolary fiction, The Elysian Fields (1780). Here’s the link: http://www.bibliomania.com/2/9/77/124/21480/1/frameset.html. As you can see, it’s merely a trifle, a fun piece of public flirtation. But then there’s the theology.
Franklin wrote the piece while in Paris, head of the fledgling American diplomatic mission. Seventy when he began his service, he wrote The Elysian Fields at the age of seventy-four.
Of all the Founding Fathers, Ben Franklin was sort of the fun one. Adams was prickly but competent, Jefferson, brilliant but hypocritical, Washington dignified and, well, dignified. Franklin, well, he’s usually the long-haired old guy cracking wise in the background. His diplomatic mission to Paris was, however utterly critical, and everyone knew it. If France recognized the United States, our independence might become a reality–if France stayed on the sidelines, our independence was essentially doomed. And Franklin was the right man for the job. He was the one American international celebrity, the living embodiment, for Europeans, of the possibilities offered by the New World, and he played his part to the hilt–donning a fur cap for public receptions like the frontiersman the French expected. (In fact, he was a city boy born and bred–the cap a most artful affectation.)
Franklin was also savvy enough to know that French salon society was the key to the hearts and minds of France’s rulers; that access is influence, and that salons held the key to access. So strategy met inclination–Franklin hardly let a day go by without carefully choosing which party invitations to accept, and which society ladies he would favor with his company. That is to say, he liked the ladies, and they loved him, in the way charming and beautiful young women often think flirty septuagenarians are ‘cute.’ They helped him with his execrable French–they also kept the pro-American pressure on. When Adams, flinty as ever, joined Franklin in Paris, he was appalled by its decadence. Ben Franklin was hardly ever appalled by much of anything. Which is one reason Franklin was a far more effective diplomat.
Franklin’s neighbor in his villa in Passy was a M. Brillon, and Franklin soon laid siege to his beautiful and charming wife, Madame Brillon. Her husband had a mistress, and she was not averse to taking a lover, but Franklin may have been sufficiently smitten to actually propose all the messiness of a divorce and marriage. Or not–most of their letters have not survived, except a couple, where she teased him with this thought–she wouldn’t marry him in this life, but she would be his wife in the next. The idea of it must have stayed with him in his next courtship, with the still-lovely sixty-year old widow Madame Helvetius.
The one independent account we have of Helvetius is from a far-from-objective source, Abigail Adams. Her appalled account suggests a sort of elderly and ghastly Paris Hilton, all wigs and powder, mopping up her lapdog’s pee with the sleeve of her gown. But Franklin was enchanted, and wrote The Elysian Fields to her, and about her.
The Elysian Fields was originally in French, which may explain why it was so short–he apparently had other salon ladies correct the grammar before publishing it himself in Paris. Franklin goes to bed and finds himself in the afterlife. There he meets two philosophers: Socrates, and M. Helvetius. He chats with the latter, and tells him how much he loves his wife, and Helvetius graciously gives Franklin permission to court her, having found a new love himself. Helvetius’ new love, it turns out, is none other than Franklin’s beloved, and deceased, Deborah.
A bagatelle, clearly, an exercise in salon wit, intended to solidify Franklin’s reputation as a charmer. But look at the ideas that define it.
There’s definitely a life after death.
The afterlife is a social place, where you can chat with people like Socrates, and also your girlfriend’s dead husband.
Love and marriage continue in the afterlife, though maybe not with the same people you were with in mortality.
No heaven or hell. Just parties and good conversation.
Look at Deborah’s last line: “I have been a good wife to you for forty-nine years and four months, almost half a century; be content with that. I have formed a new connection here, that will last for eternity.”
I don’t mean to suggest that The Elysian Fields is an important piece of literature or anything. It isn’t. It’s just that the ideas that would define the Restoration were floating around. The ground was being prepared. The idea that the ‘same sociality’ that exists here will continue in the next life may not have seemed completely radical when Joseph Smith introduced it as central to an entire new theological framework. Anyway, it’s a fun little piece, both of literature and of American history.