Friday, November 19, 2010

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Several Perceptions:

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Originally Published on’s Classic Literature Page

The mind is a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance; pass, repass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations. There is properly no simplicity in it at one time, nor identity in different, whatever natural propension we may have to imagine that simplicity and identity.

                     —David Hume, from A Treatise of Human Nature

Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography has long stood as one of the most famous and exemplary memoirs in American and world history, and Franklin himself has often been held up as a multifaceted microcosm of America itself, for better or worse. Naive patriots see the endlessly brilliant and successful Franklin as a role model for self-reliance, reading his Autobiography as an advertisement for individual initiative, while detractors see Franklin as a duplicitous facade-builder whose Autobiography hides as much as it reveals and ignores the fact that the vast majority of America—and of the world—has to sink a bit in order for a brilliant and ambitious individual such as himself to rise. Both views (and many more) easily affix themselves to the Franklin of legend, of reality, and of his Autobiography, and although no one particular reading of the man or his works can encompass his full entirety, examining the dis-united states of his Autobiography and of its readers’ perceptions of it can offer great insight into Franklin himself and into the United States that he ostensibly reflects.

As a text, the Autobiography is a complete farrago: a wholly unintegrated mass of parts that hardly portrays a coherent life at all. What’s fascinating, though, is that its four soldered-together sections show the reader innumerable interconnected and progressive sketches of Franklin that sometimes add up and sometimes don’t, and this is perhaps the only true way to view a human being of his amazing range—or, for that matter, to view any human being. Even the book’s obvious (and not-so-obvious) lacunae tell us a lot about him and ourselves, and anyone who reads the Autobiography with a bit of critical curiosity will discover volumes about how we—individually, and as a country, and as a race of humans—aspire to be and, in Franklin’s words, to be seen.

Joseph Siffred Duplessis’ portrait of
Benjamin Franklin, 1785 
Franklin wrote the first section of the book in 1771 when he was in England, and its stated form and purpose was to chronicle Franklin’s ancestry and early life in a long anecdotal letter to his firstborn son and confidante, William. Franklin did nothing without an eye to the public, however, and when reading of his precocious personal exploits, we need to keep in mind that our perceptions are as much in Franklin’s mind as are his son’s. The book’s second section was written in France in 1784, after the Revolutionary War had severed the deep bond between Franklin and his Royalist son, and this section is expressly (and coldly) addressed to the public and was written in response to the urging of friends who wanted Franklin to publish his projected Art of Virtue, which only came to fruition as this short second section of his Autobiography.

Franklin began the third section of the book later in 1784 when he was back in America, and here he returns to chronicling the progress of his fascinating history, but the focus in this section changes from the personal to the public, and instead of documenting what good he’d done for himself, he documents what good he’d done for his city, country, and world. Franklin was obsessed with doing good, and this is the longest section of the Autobiography, but what’s fascinating is that even with the in-depth accounts of establishing schools, a fire department, and the first lending-library, improving public streets and streetlights, serving as a Colonel in the French and Indian Wars, attending to various public offices, and detailing some of his experiments with electricity and heat, the Autobiography doesn’t even come close to summing up this astonishing man’s contributions to the larger public welfare. If his own personal prosperity came at the cost of outstripping less gifted individuals whose fortunes waned while his waxed—thus nullifying his personal example as a universal model because of the impossibility of everyone rising through his methods—his tireless efforts on behalf of public progress surely lifted the world a bit higher and made life for his fellow human beings a bit easier and lighter.

John Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence, 1817
The Autobiography’s very brief fourth section was begun in 1790, in the last year of Franklin’s life, and it merely continues a description of his efforts in 1757 to get some legislation passed, and then the manuscript breaks off. Thus the Autobiography of America’s most famous Founding Father, and perhaps most famous individual, ends decades before arriving at the most significant events and contributions that made him who he is to us. This incompleteness is of course part of the book’s fascination, because in addition to the selectiveness and creative license of Franklin’s self-portrait, the vastness of the missing parts makes us see how impossible it is to conceive (or even perceive) a full view of any individual human being. We round out much of the subject of the Autobiography with knowledge gained elsewhere, but even more than that, we fill in the holes with our own perceptions and self-conceptions, whether they’re positive, negative, or deeply ambivalent.

What I recommend when reading this fascinating and problematic work by this fascinating and problematic human being is to keep your view of its subject, author, and text from closing in any definitive fashion. Franklin can be both hilariously self-conscious and hilariously un-self-conscious—and can be simply embarrassing when he’s at his most un-self-consciously self-consciousness—but despite his wild flaws and foibles, he truly meant to do good, as a world citizen and as a writer of his own self. Perhaps the most good we can gain by reading his Autobiography is to achieve a deeper understanding of who we are—as individuals, as a nation, and as a world—by looking at ourselves through Franklin’s singularly cracked lenses.

—David Wiley