The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
by Benjamin Franklin
Franklin is the main character of this book and, in many ways, he's its only real, three-dimensional, fully fleshed-out character. Other people pass through and are mentioned, in ways they relate to his story, or the events Franklin's describing, but we always come back to Franklin himself. And yet, this doesn't really bother us – it's Franklin's life story we showed up for, not the Great American Novel or a play that focuses more on characterization of a few really interesting people than on a plot. It's Franklin's autobiography and it should be all about him.
Like we talked about in the other sections, it can be hard to figure out what some of the "big ideas" are in an autobiography without a proper ending. (See our discussion on "What's Up with the Ending?") There are a few things we can figure out, though. For one, Franklin wants us to know what's important to him: what he values, what he despises, what matters. We see him measure himself against his standards for good living, and the person he describes himself as seems to live up to them pretty well. (Whether that's accurate or not is harder for us to figure out.) We learn that he's so thorough and meticulous that he's got to stop writing his life story with more than thirty years' worth of material left to go. We also learn about his measured ambition, his love for education and experimentation, and his devotion to civic planning. And we see him reflected in the Philadelphia he helps to polish.
But, in a way, we're still searching for what makes him tick – why he wrote his book and what he was really like. Well, there are many reasons why Franklin could have written his Autobiography: to "recollect" and relive his life, perhaps more perfectly, as he talks about at the beginning; to provide some genealogical anecdotes for his son; to give in to his friends' flattery that he owed society a description of his life. We can see how each of these elements factors into his writing.
What's also there, though, seems to be a desire to shape – or control – his public image, to show how things happened and to create the kind of "character" he thinks he should have been. It sure seems like we're supposed to like the dry, modestly witty statesman we see in the character he shows to us, and maybe that's pretty normal – after all, if you were writing your own autobiography, wouldn't you want your readers to like (or admire) you too? Would you leave out certain parts of your past or personality to make sure that your readers liked you? But if the "real" Franklin was really different from the "character" Franklin he writes about, what are we supposed to think about that?
So who is the Franklin we find in these pages? Many critics have wondered if what we see is an honest portrait of the actual, historic Franklin, or if it's some character Franklin made up in order to shape his historic legacy. Or both. Something for us to think about is whether those two ideas can comfortably co-exist. But we find it hard to say. Either Franklin is the sweet, smart guy he's describing himself as, or he's a master spin doctor, a celebrity and publicist in one, who's still manipulating us into seeing the self – or selves – he wants to reveal. And what are those selves? Let's look a little more closely…
Franklin as Scientist, Inventor, and Politician
This version of Franklin, as some critics have mentioned, is a real Renaissance guy. He can do just about anything and do it well. Each of his interests reveals something different about him, though. For example, his commitment to scientific development shows someone who's open-minded, excited, and inventive. He's also pretty relaxed about and confident in his ideas. When the Abbé Nollet goes off on the scientific community about how Franklin's electricity ideas are bogus, Franklin just plays it cool. He has faith in his ideas, which he knows can be tested or investigated by just about anyone, so he lets his ideas speak for themselves. Decisions like this pay off: Franklin never has to get his hands dirty, other people step in to defend him, and he ends up smelling like roses.
As a politician, Franklin never even has to campaign for an office – people are giving positions to him left and right. It becomes a point of pride for him never to ask for a position with the government, and it must have almost become like a game to see how many he could get offered. With each position, Franklin does an awesome job, shows everyone a better way to do something, and is rewarded by an even bigger promotion. By the end of the Autobiography, he returns to England as an important Assembly representative, a far cry from his first trip there as a penniless apprentice printer.
Franklin as Family Man
We get almost nothing from Franklin on this topic, which is kind of unusual as far as autobiographies go. For example, we can count the number of times he mentions his wife on one hand. He doesn't talk about a grand passion between them, or how smart or attractive he finds her; as he tells it, he is more interested in a partner who is thrifty. The longest anecdote he relates about her is how she bought him a little dish of proper china and a silver spoon.
Franklin seems to love and appreciate his parents, but doesn't hang out with them much as an adult. And he burns bridges with his brother pretty definitively by running away. While he seems fond of the other Franklins, he's more interested in building his life as an individual in Philadelphia than contributing to their legacy.
As for his kids, we hear of them only peripherally; we know about his son William, because the first part of the Autobiography's addressed to him, and we know about his son Francis, because Franklin tells us (in one small paragraph) that he died of smallpox. We might want to think about why Franklin spends so little time talking about his son's short life. Do you think he's so grief-stricken he can't bear to write about it? Instead of dwelling on his sadness, Franklin takes this moment in his text to encourage parents to get their kids vaccinated. It's hard to tell whether this is a deep, private response to his anguish or whether he's just providing a public service announcement. Franklin also never mentions his daughter, or the illegitimacy of his eldest son. While he may be leaving the latter out for reasons of decorum or public opinion, these omissions make us wonder, "Hmm… What else is Franklin leaving out of this book?"
Franklin as Actual Author
We may be lulled by Franklin's direct authorial voice into forgetting just what an accomplished writer he is. The guy was incredibly prolific (he wrote a ton), and several of his works, like Poor Richard's Almanac, were extremely successful during his lifetime. The choices he makes in writing the Autobiography show a savvy, well-read individual who's not afraid to show us how he shaped his writing style or admit his lack of formal/traditional education. As an author, Franklin is helping shape the autobiographical genre; whenever you read a modern autobiography, you can bet it owes something to this one.
This author is proud – well, for Franklin that's a loaded word, since one virtue he's committed to working on is being more humble. Let's say it's more like he's really satisfied with his achievements, as an author, a publisher, an inventor, and a diplomat/civil servant. We can see how much literature means to him, though, in his choice to use it as a means of recording his legacy, instead of putting his trust in the institutions he helped found, or the policies he helped create, as being enough to memorialize him.
Franklin as a Character, Described by Himself
So, the author Franklin and the character "Franklin" that he writes about aren't the same. It's really easy to think of them as the same individual, especially with that use of the first-person narration and the idea that, in this genre (autobiography), the author and main character are supposed to resemble the same guy. But these two guys are not exactly identical. At best, we're seeing the most interesting face of the author that he's willing to show the public.
That being said, we get a carefully balanced impression of the character "Franklin" as a swell guy. He almost can't help himself when it comes to things like creating fire departments. Franklin portrays his intercessions and ideas as natural responses to the world he sees around him. He's got some flaws, but none that are really gnarly, and most of them can be chalked up to youth and inexperience. What's more, he works or studies almost without end, is successful in nearly every discipline he tries working in, and seems to get rewarded for being modest and doing good work.
It's hard to imagine many of the most basic elements of twenty-first-century American living – constitutional rights, education, safety, and electricity – without acknowledging Franklin's influence. He helped our society find a place in an enlightened world. Without Franklin, America would've turned out pretty differently; his Autobiography is also valuable because it shows us how he took the country to the next level. We're left with impression of a wise, modest civilization-builder, a Founding Father who seems approachable and intellectual, and someone whom, on Thanksgiving, we really ought to be thankful for.