Benjamin Franklin Short Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1972

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.

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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.

“Busy-Body Papers”

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 never heard of scandal attached to any given individual’s name, she first imputes the lack not to virtue but to “defective Intelligence.” Next, if she hears scandal of a woman, she praises her before other women for beauty, wit, virtue, or good management; if her prey is a man, she praises him “before his Competitors in Love, Business, or Esteem on Account of any particular Qualification.” The latter technique proves superfluous in the case of politicians. Another principle of Alice’s success involves keeping strict accounts (she is trained as a bookkeeper) of those from whom she has received or to whom she has retailed scandalous tales. Alice also generously declares that after profound reflection she determines few people allow more than a fifth of their scandalous behavior to be known; therefore she feels herself justified in improving her stories by inventing sundry details and by modest exaggeration: “I think I keep within Bounds if in relating it I only make it three times worse than it is.”

In her conclusion, Alice laments that for several days a severe cold and a terrible toothache have prevented her from talking and thus from balancing her accounts; she begs the editor to assist her by printing the material she encloses, an “Account of 4 Knavish Tricks, 2 crakt Maidenheads, 5 Cuckoldoms, 3 drubbed Wives, and 4 Henpecked Husbands.” She promises to send more should the toothache continue. In an editorial note the publisher one-ups poor Alice, however, desiring to be excused from printing “the Articles of News she has sent me; such Things being in Reality No News at all.”

“Alice Addertongue”

If didactic, “Alice Addertongue” represents the most enlightened form of didacticism. Franklin does instruct the reader at length in the nature, conduct, and personnel involved in scandal, as if any of this were really necessary. He also underlines the transparent rationalization involved; more charmingly he identifies the true motive for scandal as a perverted impulse of self-praise—prevented from elevating oneself, one denigrates others—as Alice so convincingly demonstrates in her tactics for learning of scandal. Toward the end, in a marvelous twist, she implicitly generalizes her topic by relating scandal in one form to the basis of contemporary political campaigning and of journalism. Who among Franklin’s readers could have been innocent of practicing or enjoying scandalmongering in one form or the other? The final mark of genius involves the enormous charm with which Franklin endows Alice. She is vital, magnetic, dynamic, self-assured, and absolutely amoral—rather possessing the attributes of scandal itself. The reader should not like Alice but cannot help it—much the same situation in which one finds oneself regarding scandal. Could Franklin possibly have analyzed scandal more tellingly?

“Speech of Polly Baker”

Franklin produced a marvelous array of delightful short fictions. The “Speech of Polly Baker” takes the form of a mock oration in which Miss Baker argues on the basis of industry, economy, and nature to defend herself against the calumny associated with her having brought five bastard children into the world; the introduction indicates she represented herself well enough that one of her judges married her the next day and subsequently had fifteen children by her.

“The Ephemera”

“The Ephemera,” a bagatelle, gently satirizes human ambition, learning, politics, and art—human life in sum—through the device of recounting the narrator’s eavesdropping on a May fly. Franklin’s famous letter to Madame Helvétius, another bagatelle, attempts to seduce her by means of a dream in which Franklin learns of “new connections” permitted in the afterlife; in fact, he learns that in this afterlife Mrs. Franklin and Monsieur Helvétius have formed precisely the sort of liaison Franklin devoutly hopes to establish with Madame Helvétius in the here and now.

Franklin’s two most impressive works of fiction came from his pen after his sixtieth year. They are genuine tales, not periodical essays such as his “Dogood Papers” and “Busy-Body Papers” or short sketches such as his “Speech of Polly Baker.” Their content, moreover, has nothing in common with the satirical character delineations of his newspaper sketches or with the homely wisdom of Poor Richard but is exotic and fanciful. The earliest of these pieces, published during Franklin’s middle age, concerns the mythology of Native Americans, and the latter piece, written a few years before his death, concerns everyday life in China.

“Extract from an Account of the Captivity of William Henry”

In 1768, Franklin published in two issues of the London Chronicle a pretended “Extract from an Account of the Captivity of William Henry in 1755, and of His Residence Among the Senneka Indians Six Years and Seven Months Till He Made His Escape from Them, Printed at Boston, 1766.” Like the “Speech of Polly Baker,” the piece is a journalistic hoax. There was no William Henry taken captive by the Indians and no account of such an experience published in Boston. The narrative is based instead on Franklin’s personal experience with Native Americans in Pennsylvania and a string of treaties between the colony and the local tribes that he published on his own press. Franklin’s main literary source was an anonymous deistical essay that used Native Americans as a vehicle for describing and extolling the religion of nature. Franklin’s protagonist details long conversations with the tribal chieftain and younger braves, analyzes Native Americans principles of rhetoric, and repeats one of the creation myths of the tribe. In this myth, nine warriors while out hunting see a beautiful woman descend from the clouds. Realizing that she is the daughter of the Great Spirit, they go to welcome her and give her food. She thanks them and tells them to return after twelve moons. They do so and discover various new agricultural products where the parts of her body had touched the ground. Franklin introduced this myth in his “Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America” in 1784.

“A Letter from China”

Franklin’s narrative concerning China has the same plot structure of an ordinary Englishman forced by circumstances to live in close contact with an alien culture, but it belongs to the literary genre of imaginary voyages. Given the title “A Letter from China,” when it appeared in Jared Sparks’s edition of Franklin’s works in 1839, it should more properly be treated under Franklin’s original title in the Columbia Magazine, where it was published in 1786 as “Letter from a Gentleman in Portugal to His Friend in Paris, Containing the Account of an English Sailor Who Deserted in China from Capt. Cooke’s Ship.” This is also the title on Franklin’s manuscript copy in the American Philosophical Society Library. The work, with resemblances to both Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726, 1727) and the second part of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) is pure imaginative fiction with no utilitarian purpose. It was partially inspired, however, by Captain James Cook’s voyages, which also furnished local color. The sailor, whose adventures are recounted, was seized by pirates, rescued by the authorities, and sent to work on a farm in the interior of China, where he became a quasi member of the family with whom he lived. In a style suitable to a literate sailor, who has many characteristics in common with Franklin himself, the narrator introduces in a fictional setting the most popular topics in contemporary Western writing about China.

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