75. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

The Writing of the Autobiography

Franklin began his autobiography on a summer holiday in the English countryside in 1771, when he was 65. He had already published Poor Richard’s Almanac and The Way to Wealth, but gave no indication that he was starting another book. He began it as merely a letter to his son William, whom he had not seen for seven years. “Dear Son: I have ever had great pleasure in obtaining any little anecdotes of my ancestors.” However, on his second day of writing, Franklin stopped to make an outline that would move his “letter” forward from the Franklin family’s English past through events of his own life.

Yet it is misleading to consider the result an autobiography as conventionally defined. Franklin could not have known Rousseau’s autobiography, which was not yet published. Works he did know, such as Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and, possibly, the Confessions of St. Augustine, trace the journey of a soul toward God. Franklin’s journey, by contrast, is of secular man toward knowledge of the world, and, as such, it is incomplete. Writing in the year he died, 1790, Franklin breaks off in mid sentence, his story having reached only 1757. It covers his research into electricity, although there is scanty detail about his famous kite experiment, but stops before the American Revolution and his influential political and diplomatic roles. Franklin’s Autobiography present with vividness the key episodes in a young man’s rise, from poor apprentice to prominent citizen. Its unifying theme is the lessons in behavior and morality he learns along the way. It has been accurately described as a conduct book, but it is a greatly entertaining one. The Autobiography bring Franklin the writer to life for the modern reader, as a storyteller of genius, who chooses just the right moment to laugh at himself.

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