The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin was only 22 years old when he wrote himself an epitaph (source). Aside from the fact that this was kind of a pessimistic, suffering artist thing to do, what's really interesting is his description of what he imagined his legacy would be. Franklin wrote that after he dies, his body will be like "Like the Cover of an Old Book / Its Contents torn Out," and that those "Contents" will "Appear once More / In a New and More Elegant Edition" (source). In other words, at age 22 Franklin was already obsessed with measuring his life in books. Here, he compares his body to the pages and binding of the book, and his soul to those ideas contained within it. After death, his soul or his "Contents" will be reprinted – given a certain kind of immortality – in another book.
Technically, Franklin's talking about heaven here, but, funnily enough, he could also be talking about his Autobiography. In his book, Franklin draws a vivid picture of his early life and the person he was, telling us about the many contributions he made to society and the kinds of experiences he had. At the beginning of the book he even claims that he's "recollecting" his life because it's impossible to relive it. In a way, Franklin's rewriting his life in what can be seen as a "More Elegant Edition" of prose but, instead of finding himself in heaven, he's leaving himself in literature. The persona that emerges in the Autobiography is one of the more fully drawn personalities we're likely to see in this genre.
Franklin began writing the Autobiography in 1771, but before he could finish writing his whole life story, he died, in 1790. (Part of the reason he wasn't done with the book by then was because he took two big writing breaks, between 1771 to 1784 and 1784 to 1789.) One challenge the book poses for us, then, is that it doesn't cover a lot of the interesting and important stuff that happened in Franklin's life, like the American Revolution or the time he spent working as a diplomat in Paris. While there's a lot of material here, there's also a lot we don't know.
The Autobiography has been published in many different editions since Part 1 was printed – in French – in 1791, and remains "the only enduring best-seller written in America before the nineteenth century, as well as the most popular autobiography ever written" (source). It has gotten rave reviews from people like William Dean Howells, who praise his mastery of the form, and two thumbs down from people like D.H. Lawrence, who criticize Franklin's self-portrait. Most critics agree, though, that the Autobiography is valuable on many levels: as an early example of the genre in literature, as an eighteenth-century historical record, and as a compelling portrait of such a significant public figure.
Why Should I Care?
Ask yourself if you rely on or use any of the following:
- American civil rights
- Fire departments
- Philosophy clubs
- Bifocals and glass armonicas
So, it's pretty easy to see why we should care about Franklin: he helped – really, really helped – make a lot of the good parts about our world the way they are. It seems natural that we'd want to know about why and how some of those things happened, even if we do take them for granted. What seems less obvious at first is how Ben Franklin's Autobiography fits into that. Well, for starters, the Autobiography tells us first-hand how most of this stuff went down. We're not going to get any closer to the founding of the first American fire department, or the first time someone captured lightning, than we are in reading this book. Franklin tells us his diplomatic and professional strategies, involving us in how he got things to happen in business and in politics. In short, the Autobiography shows us how easy and important it is to try and contribute to social change, while also looking out for number one.