The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

by Benjamin Franklin

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Critical Context

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The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is one of the great classics of American literature. It uses a style that has come to be identified with the eighteenth century, a style marked by clarity and balance. This approach makes the text accessible to the young adult reader. Another reason for the long-standing interest in Franklin’s autobiography is that it brilliantly encapsulates several themes that are central to American culture, such as the rags-to-riches story and the confidence that hard work will earn its desired ends. Then, too, the work shows the development of the United States from a collection of thirteen individual colonies to a thriving union of many states, making it an important document for historians and a realistic, personable entry for young readers into what were perhaps the most crucial years in the history of that country.

Younger, first-time readers of the book are often surprised that this man, who has been revered in their history books and in received opinion, had his foibles and quirks as other people do. Older readers, perhaps of a more cynical slant, notice the areas of his life that Franklin leaves out, thus opening the door to a discussion of the nature of a literary persona. Questions arise concerning the image that Franklin was projecting and the extent to which this image, the persona of the autobiography, was a creation of the eighteenth century imagination rather than a historical record. Thus, the work can be read on many levels and can appeal to a wide variety of audiences, and it can be read productively at almost any age and at almost any level of sophistication.

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