Study Guide

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

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Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

The Junto Club

The Junto Club represents male friendship and intellectual community. It's a forum for sharing ideas, getting feedback, and working on social change. In case you were wondering, it's nothing like today's idea of a gentleman's club. Instead of cigars and strippers, this is a safe, masculine space for thinking and free speech. The Junto's important in the Autobiography both for what they give to Franklin and society – in terms of places for ideas and places in which to house those ideas – and what those gifts represent.

Franklin and his friends name their club the "Junto" after a Spanish word that, depending where you look, can mean "united," a "meeting," or a "council." We think it's interesting that the club chose a Spanish word in the first place, instead of a Latin one (which might be seen as more typically scholarly); for example, does this choice show something about what the club members think of their place in the New World?

The Library

Franklin comes up with lots of societal improvements, but one of the most important ones, to which he keeps returning, is the creation of a library. The library he helps found in Philadelphia is a symbol of sharing knowledge. Throughout his life, Franklin makes versions of libraries whenever he can: arranging to borrow books from other printers and booksellers, and working with the Junto Club to establish a public, subscription library. This subject is important enough to Franklin that he passionately raises money for it, advertises it, and even contributes books from his personal library to it.

We can see how the library matters to Franklin in three different ways. First, as a reader, he sees it as a place where he can access all sorts of books that he couldn't get as an individual. Second, as a writer, he sees it as a place that sustains and values the arts of literature and philosophy. Third and finally, as a self-educator he sees it as a place that will provide other people with the same opportunities that he fought hard to get for himself. In providing people from different classes and backgrounds with equal access to books and the knowledge within them, Franklin's library insists on intellectual equality, just as the colonists using that library would soon insist on social and political equality.

Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan

Bunyan's text, written in 1678, is Franklin's favorite book. It's also a famous allegory about how Christians can make it through the hard parts of life in order to get to heaven. (If you'd like to learn more about it or how it works as an allegory, check out this cool lecture given by Ian Johnston.) It also acts as his benchmark for what a really good book is, a kind of ideal to which Franklin aspires. So, Pilgrim's Progress serves to tell us both what kind of reader Franklin is and what kind of writer he wishes to be.

As one of our beloved college professors taught us, we can also think of the Autobiography as a modified Pilgrim's Progress. Franklin has to pass through the Valley of Shadow (Boston), conquer Vanity Fair (his work on virtue), etc., to help establish a new Celestial City in Philadelphia. While Bunyan's Christian just wants to get to his Celestial City, which is really heaven, Franklin wants to help create his. This gets even more interesting when we think about how Franklin is a pious guy who believes in God, but doesn't really hang with organized religion. Perfecting Philadelphia – creating a militia, fire department, library, hospital, and university – is a way of creating a new kind of heavenly place, one where virtue is celebrated and many religions are practiced, and where the holiest thing you can do, perhaps, is read. (For more on Philadelphia, check out our section on "Setting.")


Perhaps because Franklin's a printer by profession, examples from that trade are sprinkled throughout the Autobiography. The most notable of these is "errata," which is printer-speak for errors. See, before word-processing and computers, people used printing machines that were a lot more like typewriters. If you've ever used a machine like that, you know that you can't erase a mistake once you make one: you're left with a permanent error.

Franklin uses this word to talk about the mistakes he makes; whenever he wants to say he screwed up or did something badly, he frames it as one of his "errata." We get the sense that these mistakes have really left marks on him, and that they've left almost tangible impressions on his character. His word usage also calls attention to his dual role as both author of the Autobiography and its subject, since it reminds us of the physical and technical elements of writing and publishing a book, while also underscoring the profession of its main character.

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