Study Guide

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin Memory and the Past

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Memory and the Past

I should have no Objection to a Repetition of the same Life from its Beginning, only asking the Advantage Authors have in a second Edition to correct some Faults of the first. […] However […] the Thing most like living one's Life over again, seems to be a Recollection of that Life; and to make that Recollection as durable as possible, the putting it down in Writing. (1.1)

In this statement, Franklin's explaining one of his reasons for writing his autobiography. He compares life to a book, saying that when books go through a second printing authors or editors get the chance to go back over things and make sure all the mistakes are taken out. But in life, that's not how things work – there are no do-overs. So, Franklin compares remembering life to redoing it, saying that's the closest he can get. He's interested in making that life-memory permanent, or "durable," and the best way to do that is in writing.

He was a pious and prudent Man,
She a discreet and virtuous Woman.
Their youngest Son,
In filial Regard to their Memory,
Places this Stone. (1.12)

This is the inscription Franklin has placed on his parents' gravestone. His choice to memorialize them in this way is surprising, given his attitude towards organized religion and worship. But he takes this traditional step in "Regard" to the "Memory" of his parents. This "Memory" here isn't just Franklin's personal memory of them, it's the idea of them in the community that's left behind.

By my rambling Digressions I perceive myself to be grown old. I us'd to write more methodically. But one does not dress for private Company as for a public Ball. 'Tis perhaps only Negligence. (1.13)

Franklin pokes fun at his "rambling Digressions," which is kind of like code for saying his writing in this section isn't very structured. He says his writing used to be more organized, but blames his disorganization on his age. The self he remembers was more orderly. He also says that, since this section of the book is just for family, the fact that he's rambling isn't as big of a deal. This prompts us to question who Franklin is really writing the Autobiography for; sure, it's addressed to his son at this point, but you've got to wonder if he's already thinking of a larger audience.

For when my Mother some time after spoke to him [brother James] of a Reconciliation, and of her Wishes to see us on good Terms together, and that we might live for the future as Brothers, he said, I had insulted him in such a Manner before his People that he could never forget or forgive it. In this however he was mistaken. (1.42)

This shows how other characters' memories are fallible, too. James tells their mother that he'll "never forget or forgive" Franklin, but "never" is a long time, and James can't keep his word. Like remembering, forgetting is a flawed system. Franklin can be generous about James' harsh words, though, because by the acting of writing, their original fight is so far in the past.

Osborne went to the West Indies, where he became an eminent Lawyer and made Money, but died young. He and I had made a serious Agreement, that the one who happen'd first to die, should if possible make a friendly Visit to the other, and acquaint him how he found things in that separate State. But he never fulfill'd his Promise. (1.55)

Franklin steps back from the coherent narrative to offer up a separate memory – what happens to Osborne later in his life. While Franklin remembers the pact they make, though, Osborne seems to have forgotten. Franklin frames this moment in such a way as to suggest that Osborne doesn't show up because there's no afterlife; he doesn't show up because he's not keeping his word.

After Many Years, you and I had something of more Importance to do with one of these Sons of Sir William Wyndham […] which I shall mention in its Place. (1.77)

Here, Franklin steps away from his narrative to make an authorial aside, saying that he'll come back to this character later. This seems to show his control over the narrative, or indicate a plan of action, and is also an active act of remembering. He's saying, "I'll get back to this." But this character, Wyndham's son, doesn't appear again, raising questions of whether Franklin's memory failed, his plans changed, or he just ran out of time.

before I proceed in relating the Part I had in public Affairs under this new Governor's Administration, it may not be amiss here to give some Account of the Rise and Progress of my Philosophical Reputation. (3.119)

While this kind of outside, authorial explanation could also fall under the theme of "Literature and Writing," here we can see how it functions as a kind of authorial memory. Franklin almost forgets that he should give an "Account" of his "reputation," and interjects it here before it gets swept under the rug by his political narrative.

Memo. Thus far was written with the Intention express'd in the Beginning and therefore contains several little family Anecdotes of no Importance to others. What follows was written many Years after in compliance with the Advice contain'd in these Letters, and accordingly intended for the Public. The Affairs of the Revolution occasion'd the Interruption. (1.111)

Here, Franklin inserts an actual form of written memory: a memorandum. This is a shared reminder for the author and the reader. The author steps outside of his life narrative to remind us about its structure, his authorial timeline, and what convinced him to keep writing.

This is also one of the only things Franklin says in the entire Autobiography about the American Revolution, which is what stops him in the middle of his act of writing. In a weird way, it has way more of a place as something that affected writing the book than something that happens in it.

It might too be much better done if I were at home among my Papers, which would aid my Memory, and help to ascertain Dates. But my Return being uncertain, and having just now a little Leisure, I will endeavor to recollect and write what I can; if I live to get home, it may there be corrected and improv'd. (2.31)

Franklin needs help grappling with his memory; he doesn't keep dates and other little facts in it. He promises to do his best "recollect[ing]" even though he doesn't seem to entirely trust his memory all by itself. However, by saying here that he's relying only on his memory, not on additional papers or, say, fact-checking, Franklin gives himself a little loophole for making small errors or talking about things in a different manner from the way they happened.

Resolving this Project in my Mind, as to be undertaken hereafter when my Circumstances should afford me the necessary Leisure, I put down from time to time on Pieces of Paper such Thoughts as occur'd to me respecting it. Most of these are lost (3.4)

Again, Franklin knows his memory is fallible, so when he has some interesting ideas about his project, he decides to write them down. He thinks then he'll come back to them later, so he decides to keep his "Thoughts" outside of himself on paper – kind of like how Franklin puts his life's memories into the Autobiography. What's too bad is that these papers are just as fallible as his memory, and when he loses the papers, his ideas are doubly lost.

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