The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. He is often thought of as the revolutionary figure who led protests against the Stamp Act, helped draft the Declaration of Independence, coordinated the peace treaty ending the American Revolution, and co-wrote and signed the U.S. Constitution It is ironic,
the man on the $100 however, that Franklin is remembered more as the civic figure--
bill--than as the man who invented the stove or the man who formulated his own theories about lightning and electricity. The irony stems from the fact that Franklin often thought of himself as more of a scientist than a political thinker. This self-identification comes through in the Autobiography, which does not discuss the Revolution in any capacity and hardly even refers to events after 1757. Indeed, in the Autobiography, we get a full picture of Franklin as the Renaissance scholar, fascinated by all types of learning and interested in doing whatever he could to make life a little bit better for mankind, based on the notion that the way to please God was by doing good to other men. This interest manifested itself in public service and scientific progress.
Franklin's account of his life is divided into four parts, reflecting the different periods at which he wrote them. In these parts, several aphorisms are made about friendship. These are somewhat confusing, but can be understood with some comprehension skills. There are actual breaks in the narrative between the first three parts, but Part Three's narrative continues into Part Four without an authorial break (only an editorial one).
The publication of the Autobiography is an interesting story unto itself. Franklin actually stated several times that he did not wish the work to be made totally public. However, based on the number of manuscripts sent out to his various friends before his death, it is very difficult to believe that Franklin died believing that the general public would never see his work, which he never had the chance to revise. Some parts of the Autobiography were printed as early as a month after Franklin's death. The following year, 1791, Part One was released in French, and two years later, it was retranslated back into English by an anonymous author. In 1818, 28 years after Franklin's death, his grandson released an edition containing Parts One, Two and Three (this was the first publication of Part Three). It was not until the John Bigelow edition of 1868 that all four parts of the Autobiography appeared in English. The 20th century saw three major editions of the Autobiography, each one more accurate and complete than its predecessor. The most recent edition, and the one generally accepted as authoritative, was edited by Leo Lemay and P.M. Zall and released in 1981. (Lemay and Zall also wrote a comprehensive study of the publication history of the Autobiography which is only excerped here.)
There are a number of "firsts" associated with the Autobiography. It is considered the first popular self-help book ever published. It was the first and only work written in American before the 19th century that has retained bestseller popularity since its release. It was the first major secular American autobiography. It is also the first real account of the American Dream in action as told from a man who experienced it firsthand. This form would be copied numerous times throughout American history,
most notably by such writers as Horatio Alger.
Nevertheless, despite its groundbreaking accomplishments, the Autobiography has been attacked by numerous critics throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The most notable of these attacks was delivered by D.H. Lawrence in 1923, who accused Franklin of being lost in his own quirky optimism; Lawrence argues that Franklin should have concerned himself with the darker aspects of humanity. Lawrence even proposed an alternate list of the 13 virtues as a means of both parodying and criticizing Franklin. The German sociologist Max Weber also condemned Franklin's work on sociological grounds as being blindly capitalistic. In modern times, many critics have found fault with Franklin's arrogance versus his commitment to humility. Nevertheless, the Autobiography remains an important look into the history and sociology of 18th century America. Franklin in many ways embodies the Enlightenment spirit, and may even be thought of as the first prototypical "American."
Born 1706 in Boston, Benjamin Franklin was the 15th of his father's 17 children. He went to school as a child with the intent of becoming a minister, as his father, Josiah, intended. However, that idea was dropped after Franklin showed a keen interest in reading and writing. He was apprenticed to his brother, James at a young age, but after fighting with his brother he quit the job and moved to Philadelphia, where he worked for a man named Samuel Keimer. After befriending some prominent political figures, including the royal Governor, Franklin left for England, where he spent 18 months working for a printer with his friend James Ralph, with whom he later became estranged. Shortly after returning to America in 1726, Franklin formed a debating club called the Junto. Two years later, he took over The Pennsylvania Gazette from Keimer and turned it into a successful publication with tools from London. In 1730, Franklin wed his old sweetheart, Deborah Read, with whom he had two children. The first, William Franklin, was born approximately one year later; he is the man to whom the Autobiography is addressed in Part One.
Throughout the 1730s, Franklin held some minor positions doing printing work for the government. In that time, he began Poor Richard's Almanac and became postmaster of Philadelphia. Towards the end of the decade, he invented the Franklin stove. In the 1740s, Franklin worked on several projects, including the fire brigade, the police force, the University of Pennsylvania, the street sweeping service and some other smaller public works projects. He retired from the printing business in 1748 and began to conduct scientific experiments in lightning. In 1753, he was awarded honorary degrees from Harvard and Yale, and he became Postmaster General of America. The following year, when war broke out between England and France (the French and Indian War Franklin began to draft proposals outlining means by which funds could be raised for colonial defense. He succeeded in many of his proposals, and he personally played a large part in organizing the war effort. The Autobiography, however, breaks off in 1757; it is left unfinished.
The Autobiography itself was written in three different times: 1771 in England, 1783-83 in France, and 1788 in America. If Franklin meant to complete it, he died before he got the chance.
Benjamin Franklin ;The author and protagonist of the Autobiography; he writes the work ostensibly to tell his son about his life and to provide a model of self-betterment for anyone interested. Born into a modest Boston family, Franklin moved to Philadelphia in his late teens and eventually opened up his own newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette. The Autobiography tells of the major events of his life and many of his important scientific and political ideas, but the work does not discuss the American Revolution, in which Franklin was a major participant.
William Franklin;Benjamin's son and royal governor of New Jersey in 1771 when Ben begins writing the work. Ben begins the Autobiography as a letter to William with the intent of telling him about his life.
Parents;Ben's parents were named Josiah and Abiah. Abiah is mentioned very little. Josiah's second wife, she mothered ten children with him. Ben was the eighth of these children. Josiah took a large interest in Benjamin, teaching how to debate and how to write effectively. Ben respected him enormously. After both parents died, Ben had them buried and erected a monument to them in a prominent Boston cemetery. James Franklin;Franklin older brother who owns a printing house in Boston. Ben is apprenticed to James when Ben is 12, and while they do not always get along very well, Ben learns much from James and proves to be quite helpful. When James is arrested for holding subversive political ideas, Ben takes over the paper until James' release. When Ben breaks his contract and leaves for Philadelphia, James grows angry and spiteful.
John Collins;A "bookish lad" whom Ben befriends in Boston. They two practice their debating skills in Boston. John resolves to go to Philadelphia with Ben several years later, but his plans evaporate when he becomes an alcoholic and ends up moving to the Caribbean. Ben loans him a large amount of money which Collins never repays. Andrew Bradford;A printer in Philadelphia, he is unable to hire Franklin but he does allow Franklin to stay in his house. Later on, when Franklin runs his own paper, the two are competitors until Bradford leaves the printing industry.
Samuel Keimer;The printer in Philadelphia for whom Franklin works. Their
relationship deteriorates over time, and eventually they have a falling out. Keimer, however, tries to make amends when he realizes that Ben can supply him with important printing tools.
John Read;A resident of Philadelphia, he houses Franklin shortly after Franklin arrives in Philadelphia.
Deborah Read;The daughter of John Read, she eventually marries Franklin even though their courtship is interrupted by his 18-month trip to England, during which time she marries another man who disappears--thus allowing her marriage to Franklin. Gov. William Keith;The royal Governor of Pennsylvania when Franklin arrives in Philadelphia. Keith is impressed by Franklin and resolves to help him, but in effect
does very little. He is a man who does not often follow through on what he says he will do.
James Ralph;A local Philadelphia poet whom Franklin befriends and with whom Franklin travels to England. Franklin tells a story of a time when Ralph, who was often disliked and thus overly criticized by his friends in the realm of poetry, asked Franklin to read one of Ralph's poems as Franklin's own, which Franklin did to very high praise. Ralph traveled with Franklin to England, where he leeched off Franklin most of the time and borrowed large sums of money that he never repaid. Franklin and Ralph ended up going separate ways when Franklin hits on Ralph's girlfriend and is rejected.
Mr. Denham;A friendly Quaker whom Franklin meets on his way to England. They remain friends while in England, and it is Denham who eventually convinces Franklin to return to America after an 18-month stay. Franklin works for Denham for a short time in a goods store upon his return.
Meredith;The man with whom Franklin begins a new printing house after leaving Keimer. Meredith, however, does not work very hard, and eventually leaves.
Franklin's Autobiography has received widespread praise, both for its historical value as a record of an important early American and for its literary style. It is often considered the first American book to be taken seriously by Europeans as literature. William Dean Howells in 1905 asserted that "Franklin's is one of the greatest autobiographies in literature, and towers over other autobiographies as Franklin towered over other men." However, Mark Twain's essay "The Late Benjamin Franklin" (1870) provides a less exalted reaction, albeit somewhat tongue-in-cheek (for example, claiming that his example had "brought affliction to millions of boys since, whose fathers had read Franklin's pernicious biography"). D. H. Lawrence wrote a notable invective against "Middle-sized, sturdy, snuff-coloured Doctor Franklin" in 1924, finding considerable fault with Franklin's attempt at crafting precepts of virtue and at perfecting himself.
Nevertheless, responses to The Autobiography have generally been more positive than Twain's or Lawrence's, with most readers recognizing it as a classic of literature and relating to the narrative voice of the author. In this work, Franklin's persona comes alive and presents a man whose greatness does not keep him from being down-to-earth and approachable, who faces up to mistakes and blunders ("Errata") he has committed in life, and who presents personal success as something within the reach of anyone willing to work hard enough for it.
J. A. Leo Lemay & P. M. Zall, eds., Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography: A Norton Critical Edition (NY: Norton, 1986). ISBN 0-393-95294-0. (Used for most information in article, including quotes from Autobiography text, history of publication, and critical opinions.
Benjamin Franklin: Writings, ed. J. A. Leo Lemay (NY: Library of America, 1987). ISBN 0-940450-29-1. (Notes on p. 1559 are source for dating of Part Four.)
SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.” SparkNotes.com. SparkNotes LLC. n.d.. Web. 20 Jun. 2011.