Other Literary Forms

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Benjamin Franklin excelled in a dazzling variety of literary forms. He initiated the United States’ first successful periodical series, the “Dogood Papers”; he wrote and published Poor Richard’s Almanack, an annual compilation of weather predictions, jokes, tales, proverbs, and miscellaneous materials; he published numerous scientific papers, such as the description of his famous kite experiment which identified lightning as a form of electricity; he wrote piercing satires such as the delightful “The Sale of the Hessians” and brilliant bagatelles such as “The Ephemera”; and the most important of his many political efforts may have been his editorial contributions to the Declaration of Independence and to the United States Constitution. At the end of his life, he produced one of the most popular, most widely praised, and most influential autobiographies in world literature.

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Achievements

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Benjamin Franklin’s monumental contributions to science, diplomacy, and politics have been in large measure conveyed through his clear and forceful prose, and the universal recognition accorded to these accomplishments takes into account his literary skills. Franklin was appointed Joint-Deputy Postmaster General of England in 1753; he was awarded the Copley Medal of the Royal Society of London in 1754 and was elected to membership in 1756. He was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from the University of St. Andrews in 1759, and an honorary degree of Doctor of Civil Law from the University of Oxford in 1762. Franklin was also elected president of the American Philosophical Society (1769); chosen delegate to the Second Continental Congress (1775); elected Minister Plenipotentiary to France (1778); elected member of the Royal Academy of History of Madrid (1784); elected President of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania (1785); and elected delegate to the Federal Constitutional Convention (1787).

Discussion Topics

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What experiences of his early life prepared Benjamin Franklin for the composition of Poor Richard’s Almanack?

How does Franklin’s version of Enlightenment philosophy differ from that Thomas Jefferson?

Which of the virtues in Franklin’s list in his Autobiography does he owe to religious tradition, which to his rationalistic philosophy? Do any partake of both?

How does Franklin’s sense of humor contribute to works such as Poor Richard’s Almanack and the Autobiography?

What are the chief ingredients of Franklin’s prose style?

Develop support for the following assertion: Franklin’s writings illustrate a strong interest in both theoretical and applied science.

Bibliography

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Aldridge, A. Owen. Benjamin Franklin and Nature’s God. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1967. This study of Franklin’s theology treats his religious beliefs in relation to both his practice and his literary works, including “Speech of Polly Baker,” “Extract from an Account of the Captivity of William Henry,” and “Letter from a Gentleman in Portugal.” Intended for the serious student, it is particularly relevant to Franklin’s views on metaphysics and personal conduct.

Anderson, Douglas. The Radical Enlightenments of Benjamin Franklin. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. A study that focuses on the literary and intellectual career of Franklin in his early years; provides a close reading of a number of Franklin texts.

Brands, H. W. The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Doubleday, 2000. A thorough biography that fleshes out the multifaceted Franklin.

Campbell, James. Recovering Benjamin Franklin: An Exploration of a Life of Science and Service. Chicago: Open Court, 1999. A thoughtful look at Franklin’s life.

Durham, Jennifer L. Benjamin Franklin: A Biographical Companion. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 1997. A good, contemporary biography of Franklin.

Franklin, Benjamin. Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. Edited by J. A. Leo Lemay and P. M. Zall. New York: W. W. Norton. 1986. This critical edition presents the authoritative text of Franklin’s Memoirs of the Life, superseding those in all multivolume editions of Franklin’s writings. Particularly useful are thirty pages of biographical notes concerning the contemporary and historical figures mentioned in the autobiography. Other valuable sections contain relevant extracts from Franklin’s letters and selected commentaries by outstanding critics from Franklin’s times to the mid- 1980’s.

Franklin, Benjamin. Benjamin Franklin’s Writings. Edited by J. A. Leo Lemay. New York: Library of America, 1987. This outstanding anthology—by far the best in print—contains not only the quintessence of Franklin’s literary production but also valuable annotations and a thorough index.

Franklin, Benjamin. Franklin on Franklin. Edited by Paul M. Zall. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001. A newly edited early draft of Franklin’s autobiography, with expunged passages restored and the last decades, unrecorded by Franklin, filled out with correspondence and diary entries.

Granger, Bruce I. Benjamin Franklin: An American Man of Letters. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1964. In order to prove that Franklin is an important man of letters, Granger subjects his periodical essays, almanacs, letters, bagatelles, and autobiography to close stylistic analysis, developing the “persona” of his sketches and the tropes of his essays and conversely dissecting “such rhetorical figures as analogy, repetition, proverb and pun.” This stylistic analysis is successful as far as it goes, but it fails to consider the intensely human message of Franklin’s best writing.

Locker, Roy N., ed. Meet Dr. Franklin. Philadelphia: Franklin Institute, 1981. Sixteen prominent historians contribute to this compilation of essays analyzing various aspects of Franklin’s career, including the literary. Intended for the nonspecialist, the essays cover the essentials of Franklin’s life and thought.

Morgan, Emund S. Benjamin Franklin. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002. For a review of this admiring portrait written by the chair of the administrative board overseeing the publication of Franklin’s thirty-six volumes of published writings see Magill’s Literary Annual review.

Middlekauff, Robert. Benjamin Franklin and His Enemies. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Van Doren, Carl. Benjamin Franklin. New York: Viking, 1938. This biography, although old, is the most readily obtainable, most comprehensive, and most adapted to the general reader. Extensive quotations from Franklin’s works provide a “speaking voice” for both the historical figure and the human personality. The text is long but brings the whole of Franklin’s life into a single narrative.

Wood, Gordon S. “Not So Poor Richard.” The New York Review of Books 43 (June 6, 1996): 47-51. Claims that Franklin is the hardest of all the Founding Fathers to understand; provides a biographical sketch, noting particularly the apparent contradiction between his image as a rustic, industrious, prototypical American and his image as an urbane and aristocratic European.

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Critical Essays