No American writer before Washington Irving produced more brilliant short fiction or approached the modern short story quite so closely, or quite so often, as Benjamin Franklin. The modern short story developed in America when Irving and others managed to blend the best of two quite distinct traditions: the essay-sketch tradition and the tale tradition. Scholars agree that Benjamin Franklin was the very first American to imitate the Addisonian periodical essay in America and that he had a genius for manipulating elements of the tale tradition: folklore, hoaxes, tall tales, and so on.
Franklin’s first published prose, the first of his fourteen Addisonian Dogood papers, appeared on April 2, 1722, in the New England Courant. Taking the form of a letter to the paper, the sketch introduces the marvelously characterized persona Franklin adopted for the series, Mistress Silence Dogood; her fondness for gossip, mother wit, humane concern for others, eye for detail, sense of humor, earthiness, and well-deserved vanity make her one of the best-developed and most utterly charming characters of eighteenth century American literature. Apart from her rather more conventional moral system, Mistress Dogood in some respects recalls Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, another vital widow powerfully addicted to life.
Franklin further improved his writings skills in the Busy-Body essays which he penned some six years later, but the lightly sketched persona of this series cannot begin to approach Mistress Dogood’s vitality. Some parts of the series, however—the eighth essay, for example—do tentatively approach the short story. Somewhat later, as seen on July 10, July 24, and September 12 of 1732, Franklin became interested enough in character for its own sake that he abandoned even the quite loose structure of the periodical essay and launched into independent character sketches. Each satirizes a distinct character type. “Anthony Afterwit” depicts a man who is tricked into marrying a woman without a dowry and nearly ruined by her extravagance, who finally reestablishes a rule of economy and common sense in the household when his wife absents herself for a brief vacation. “Celia Single” in a charming scene and apt dialogue reports some of the aftermath in the Afterwit household and comments tellingly, with examples, on imprudence in the male of the species. The best of the three—and each is decidedly lively and entertaining—characterizes Alice Addertongue, a dedicated scandalmonger and one of Franklin’s most brilliantly realized creations.
Mistress Addertongue opens her piece, a mock letter to the newspaper (The Pennsylvania Gazette, in which all three of these pieces appeared), commenting about recent newspaper essays on scandal and wittily employing an impeccable logic to demonstrate that only immoral “blockheads” complain of backbiting and gossip:They represent it as the worst of Crimes, and then roundly and charitably charge the whole Race of Womankind with it. Are they not then guilty of what they condemn, at the same time that they condemn it?
Let those who accuse Franklin of an incurable didacticism digest that moral and Mistress Addertongue’s introduction to the next section: “Let us leave then these Idiot Mock-Moralists, while I entertain you with some Account of my Life and Manners.” A “young Girl of about thirty-five,” she is unmarried and economically independent but still lives with her mother. Alice first prefers self-praise to scandal of others, but, on the one hand, she is censured and whipped for such display of ill manners and, on the other, finds herself much more likely to please an audience by attacking third parties rather than by praising herself. Franklin here as elsewhere economizes, describing the vice, exploring scandalmongers’ motives, and vividly characterizing his protagonist at one stroke.
In illustration of the latter principle, Alice recalls an incident wherein she vanquishes her mother’s antipathy to the vice. During a tea party in the parlor, her mother brutally bores her company with a drizzling litany of praise of their various neighbors; Alice decamps to the kitchen where she contrarily entertains the girls with “a ridiculous Story of Mr.——’s Intrigue with his Maid, and his Wife’s Behaviour upon the Discovery.” By and by the mother finds herself destitute of company and in turn adjourns to the kitchen, a convert to Alice’s cause.
Mistress Addertongue next describes how she has succeeded in making herself “the Center of all the Scandal in the Province.” One principle involves sound business practices: Whenever someone tells her one foul story she punctually repays it with two. Another principle dictates that if she has...
(The entire section is 1972 words.)