The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

by Benjamin Franklin

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 499

Just as Benjamin Franklin himself was a man of many interests, the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin has many facets. It shows how an ambitious individual can move up in the world by being willing to work hard, by having a decent amount of good luck, and by seizing opportunities. Among other things, his autobiography is a study in entrepreneurism and individual pluck. Franklin’s economic climb came the hard way, as he worked first as an apprentice to his brother James, who published a newspaper, and eventually became the printer for the state of Pennsylvania and owned his own business. When Franklin was appointed to official government offices, such as postmaster, he also came to know people who were important politically, and some of these early contacts are described in the work. Yet what Franklin seems most proud of and what he spends the most time recounting are the many civic improvements that he had a hand in—from the formation of the first American subscription library to the first fire department, from a plan for improving city cleanliness by paving the streets and keeping the pavement swept to a design for a more efficient stove. Another area that he only begins to describe is his work as a diplomat. Unfortunately, the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin ends before it reaches the period of Franklin’s international recognition.

When Franklin began his autobiography, he wrote in the form of memoirs and referred to the work in that manner. The term perhaps more accurately explains the form of the work than the title by which it is most known, as the word “memoirs” suggests the fragmented quality of the book. It is divided into two major sections, the second section composed of three parts. The first section begins as a letter that Franklin wrote to his son William in 1771; Franklin was a guest of the bishop of St. Asaph’s at Twyford on a summer holiday from his work in London. Then came the American Revolution, and Franklin returned home. After ten years had passed, Franklin took up his memoirs once again, this time from a site not far from Paris. Franklin had received letters in 1782 and 1783 requesting that he continue the story of his life after 1730. The second part of his autobiography was begun in 1784, but after an account of his scheme to achieve moral perfection, there was another break. Franklin picked up the narrative again in August, 1788, writing from Philadelphia. He took the story of his life to about 1757, no doubt intending to continue, but there the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin stops. Franklin lived some thirty years after the events recorded in his autobiography, years of accomplishment and considerable diplomatic influence.

Most of the autobiography is in narrative form, but Franklin includes letters from others and a sample chart from his book on self-improvement. He also frequently digresses to moralize on the events and characters that he describes and to offer his opinions on a wide range of topics.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 252

Griffith, John. “The Rhetoric of Franklin’s Autobiography.” Criticism 13 (Winter, 1971): 77-94. A careful discussion of the strategies and aesthetics employed by Franklin in the execution of his literary designs. Emphasis is on literary analysis rather than on explication.

Jehlen, Myra. “ ‘Imitate Jesus and Socrates’: The Making of a Good American.” South Atlantic Quarterly 89, no. 3 (Summer, 1990): 501-524. General discussion of the moral and philosophical implications of Franklin’s described regimen for acquiring the thirteen virtues that would bring perfection to one who possessed them.

Levin, David. “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin: The Puritan Experiment in Life and Art.” In Benjamin Franklin: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Brian M. Barbour. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1979. Distinguishes between the character of Franklin’s persona in the autobiography and the character of the writer himself; emphasis on Franklin’s effort to resolve the Puritan dedication to virtue and the work ethic with the Enlightenment focus on rational inquiry.

Seavey, Ormond. Becoming Benjamin Franklin: The Autobiography and the Life. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988. A carefully documented and exhaustive two-part critical and psychological study of Franklin both as a writer with a rhetorical purpose and as a figure of the Enlightenment.

Shea, Daniel B., Jr. “Franklin and Spiritual Autobiography.” In Benjamin Franklin: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Brian M. Barbour. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1979. Identifies Franklin’s autobiography as a model in form and essence for the spiritual writings of Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson, among others.

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Critical Essays