Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin

Rating - 3: worth reading once (borrow it from a library)

Benjamin Franklin was a great American. His personality is America. He has that archetypical combination of idealism, cynicism, independence, love of commerce, vanity, and aspiration to virtue. You can find paeans to Franklins elsewhere, so I will move along.

The writing is a study in indirect characterization. Franklin tells about himself to some degree, but our sense of his character comes from what he describes himself doing and how he describes it. We see his priorities and pretensions, successes and "errata," his unique voice and emphasis.

Some of his emphases are probably just the style of the time in which he wrote and his intent in writing. Modern autobiographical works frequently focus on one's internal experiences and emotions: this is what happened, and this is how I reacted to it. Franklin is all about activity. The death of a child is relegated to a single paragraph, used to implore readers to inoculate their children. His wife appears for a few pages. Mostly, Franklin wants to talk about business, followed by public service. This is how this business went, this is how an investment turned out, this is how he got something through the legislature. The focus is on how to be successfully industrious.

Franklin never did master humility. "For even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome [pride], I should probably be proud of my humility." (emphasis in original) There is a subdued sense of pride in almost everything, a quiet little "and that turned out rather well" after most ventures, or perhaps "and I met with the acclaim of the assembly." I suppose one is entitled to a bit of preening in one's autobiography, especially for such a figure. His obviously failed attempts to conceal his pride are endearing.

As a book, I must admit that it is flawed. There is an obvious break where he left the project and returned to it. The ending point seems entirely arbitrary, with the resolve to build a lighthouse. There is no attempt to make an arc out of the tale, no unifying theme. It is a history, a collection of vignettes on the general themes of "this is how to be successfully industrious" and "Franklin was a cool guy." My copy lacks two rather important words, the opening of the book: "Dear son." The idea that he is writing directly to his son might change some of how you interpret things, I would think. Franklin's writing style is that of another age, which I find comfortable, but which may not be appealing to some. As I said, I like his voice.

Will the scattered advice about specifics be useful to you? Unlikely. You will not be installing gas lanterns in your town anytime soon, nor will you be running a printing press by hand. But you will have a job and you will be active in the world, so approach the little stories as examples of how to deal with the world. In whatever you do, there are worse things you could be than a Franklin.

One of many online links

Amazon link

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