The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

by Benjamin Franklin

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 579

The narrative tone of the book is clearly that of an older man looking back upon the accomplishments and mistakes of his youth. An element of self-reflection pervades the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, especially in the part that is written to his son. Nevertheless, the tone is one of perfect self-awareness and personal satisfaction. In the opening paragraph, Franklin notes that he was born in “poverty and obscurity” and reached in his adulthood “a state of affluence and some degree of reputation in the world.” His motive is not to revel in his accomplishments, however, but to offer a method by which his son will be able to advance as Franklin has. Indeed, even modern readers can appreciate the rags-to-riches model that Franklin displays in his autobiography and learn much about the value of studying, working hard, creating a good image, and taking responsibility for oneself.

In keeping with the Puritan ancestry that he details at the beginning of his autobiography, Franklin is at ease with introspection. Often, however, this introspection serves not so much to enlighten Franklin about himself as to provide an object lesson for the reader. While he confesses to having committed a number of errata during his life, mistakes that he wishes he could correct, more often he shows how he succeeded and reached his present state. This goal seems to be more apparent in part 1 of the work than in part 2.

More than ten years after he stopped writing the memoirs in 1771, he received letters from Abel James and Benjamin Vaughan urging him to complete the record of his life. Among the reasons for continuing the account, Vaughan notes that Franklin’s life provides “a table of the internal circumstances” of the young country; thus, a historical, public, and collective theme is introduced. Franklin acknowledges his change in audience at the end of part 1 when he notes that some of the information contained in the opening pages of his autobiography is of a private nature and of interest only to family, whereas the next part is intended for the public.

Consequently, the chatty, familiar tone of the first part yields to a slightly more formal tone and an account that is more informative regarding specific dates and civic accomplishments. Franklin is didactic throughout the work, and he is rarely hesitant to voice an opinion on topics ranging from religion to government. What he has to say about religion dramatically shows the shift in sensibility from seventeenth century piety to eighteenth century secularism. For example, he objects to a Presbyterian minister on the grounds that his aim seemed “to be rather to make Presbyterians than good citizens.” Above all, Franklin was interested in producing good citizens, people who would contribute to the improvement of society. It is interesting to note that, while the autobiography begins with references to religion, and an acknowledgment of God, the focus throughout is on humanity’s accomplishments. An erratum, the word for a printer’s error, is the word that Franklin metaphorically uses to label what in former times might be called a “sin.” A sin cannot be easily forgotten, but an erratum, on the other hand, like a typographical error, can be corrected without much trouble. Thus, Franklin does not achieve the spiritual depth of writers of the seventeenth century, but he shows what it meant to be an eighteenth century individual governed by reason. Thus, his book will continue to be read by both young and older adults.

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Critical Context