Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics


What’s the connection between Ben Franklin and Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly’s character in the 1952 film musical Singin’ in the Rain), aside from being the Americans most famous for felicitous activities during a rainstorm? I was watching the film recently, and was struck by the opening scene, which I had forgotten, where the hero, movie star Don Lockwood, narrates his biography, and we see Lockwood’s intimation of a sophisticated, upper-class upbringing — “[Mum and dad] sent me to the finest schools, including dancing school. . .   We rounded out our apprenticeship at an exclusive dramatics academy… We played the finest symphonic halls in the country.” — humorously intercut with images on the screen of low-class reality — tap-dancing in a pool hall and fiddling in burlesque theatres, piano in honky tonks and whorehouses, being slapped by parents, etc.

It occurred to me that in one paradigm old-world fairy tale, a seemingly riffraff protagonist is revealed to be a person of consequence when his hitherto concealed high birth is recognised. In the American transformation, a seemingly foppish aristocrat is revealed to be a person of consequence when his hitherto concealed low birth and plucky struggle to the top are revealed. And as in so much else, this feature of American character and culture was first limned by Benjamin Franklin, in his famous “Information to those who would remove to America“:

According to these opinions of the Americans, one of them would think himself more obliged to a genealogist, who could prove for him that his ancestors and relations for ten generations had been ploughmen, smiths, carpenters, turners, weavers, tanners, or even shoemakers, and consequently that they were useful members of society; than if he could only prove that they were gentlemen, doing nothing of value, but living idly on the labor of others.

An even more pithy statement of a similar world view, that I have seen attributed to Franklin though without being able to find the reference (so that I suspect the source is in fact someone else):

I care not who my ancestors were. I care who my descendants will be.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Tag Cloud

%d bloggers like this: