Study Guide

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin Literature and Writing

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Literature and Writing

Now imagining it may be equally agreeable to you to know the Circumstances of my Life, many of which you are yet unacquainted with; and expecting a Week's uninterrupted Leisure in my present Country Retirement, I sit down to write them for you. (1.1)

This quotation connects imagination and writing in the mind of the author. Before Franklin can begin to write his narrative, he has to conjure up an imaginary audience for it. Not only does he have to come up with the audience, he's creating one that he thinks will be happy to hear about and be interested in his life. Then, the line works like a subliminal message, encouraging the reader to find the story "agreeable."

But as Prose Writing has been of great Use to me in the Course of my Life, and was a principal Means of my Advancement, I shall tell you how in such a Situation I acquir'd what little Ability I have in that Way. (1.16)

In this metatextual sentence, Franklin tells us about how he learned to write while using the writing process. While we've got Franklin as author writing in "prose," in the autobiographical form, we've also got Franklin as narrator telling us about a particular turn in the story. But this statement also reveals the kind of character Franklin is: a person who's practical, in working on the kind of writing that's useful to him, and a person who's modest, putting down the considerable writing abilities he's simultaneously showing to us.

I fell far short in elegance of Expression, in Method and in Perspicuity, of which he [Collins] convinc'd me by several Instances. I saw the Justice of his Remarks, and thence grew more attentive to the Manner in Writing, and determin'd to endeavor at Improvement. (1.17)

Here, Franklin offers us a peek at the peer review workshop he had going on with his friend Collins. Franklin's not afraid here to admit his shortcomings – to take a critique – and also shows here his sense of fairness and his willingness to try and get better. As readers, we could sit in judgment here about the "manner" of his writing and whether, years later, Franklin has achieved the kind of "elegance" he describes here.

I took some of the Papers, and making short Hints of the Sentiment in each Sentence, laid them by a few Days, and then without looking at the Book, tried to complete the Papers again, by expressing each hinted Sentiment at length and as fully as it had been express'd before, in any suitable Words that should come to hand. (1.18)

This reveals how Franklin thinks about reading and writing. He continually tries to internalize the material he comes across, taking it in so completely that he can regurgitate it in a new way, as "fully" and "suitably" as possible. He wants to be as articulate as the writers he admires.

It prov'd to be my old favorite Author Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress in Dutch […] Honest John was the first that I know of who mix'd Narration and Dialogue, a Method of Writing very engaging to the Reader, who in the most interesting Parts finds himself as it were brought into the Company, and present at the Discourse. (1.28)

Franklin doesn't just say what his favorite book is, he explains in a smart, literary way just why Bunyan's book works so well. What's more, he shows himself to be kind of ahead of his time by engaging in a sort of "rise of the novel" critique. This tells us what Franklin really values in his reading material, and also suggests what kinds of books might be found in his library. Something for us to consider, perhaps, is whether Franklin achieves in the Autobiography this balance between description and discussion that he so admires in Pilgrim's Progress.

For The Incidents of the Voyage, I refer you to my Journal, where you will find them all minutely related. Perhaps the most important Part of that Journal is the Plan to be found in it which I formed at Sea for regulating my future Conduct in Life. (1.79)

It's always interesting when a writer refers to other stuff he's written. Here, though, Franklin's drawing our attention not to another published work of his, but to a private piece. This reinforces a sense of shared intimacy; he's allowing us to look in on a genre that's typically private.

[S]ince our Books were often referr'd to in our Disquisitions upon the Queries, it might be convenient to us to have them all together where we met […] by thus clubbing our Books to a common Library, we should […] have each of us the Advantage of using the Books of all the other Members, which would be nearly as beneficial as if each owned the whole. (1.109)

Franklin shares his really excellent idea for a subscription library, and also shows us what it was like to be part of an intellectually centered club by the Junto. It's proof of the club members' generosity, and their commitment to scholarship, that they agree to donate their books to make a bigger collection, rather than each hoarding their individual, small stock of books. Franklin's use of "club[ed]" also reinforces the air of fellowship surrounding the library.

The Influence Writings under that Class have on the Minds of Youth is very great, and has no where appeared so plain as in our public Friends' Journals. It almost insensibly leads the Youth into the Resolution of endeavoring to become as good and as eminent as the Journalist. (2.4)

As Abel James councils in his letter to Franklin, he should be mindful of his audience, who will actually be deprived if he doesn't finish the book. Since they're such an impressionable group, they need to be provided with good models and examples so that they don't fall into bad ways. This is similar to the kind of advice Samuel Johnson gives in his Rambler No. 4, when he reminds authors of their responsibility to their impressionable young audiences and urges them to write suitable material.

I therefore filled all the little Spaces that occur'd between the Remarkable Days in the Calendar, with Proverbial Sentences, chiefly as inculcated Industry and Frugality, as the Means of procuring Wealth and thereby securing Virtue (3.6)

Franklin describes how he composed one of his most lucrative pieces, Poor Richard's Almanac. We get a first-hand glimpse here at his practicality and ingenuity. People are already going to be interested in his product because of the calendar, so Franklin takes advantage of this kind of captive audience as a platform for his messages about "Industry," "Frugality," and "Virtue." He links hard work and income with goodness and morality for his readers.

But I am got forward too fast with my Story; there are still some Transactions to be mentioned that happened during the Administration of Governor Morris. (3.74)

Franklin the author here interrupts Franklin the character, interjecting his authorial organizational plan into his reminiscing as a character. He also calls what he's telling us a "Story," encouraging readers to think of his book as similar to another, fictional narrative, and as something to be enjoyed.

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