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The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin

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Summary

Benjamin Franklin was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. He is often thought of as the revolutionary figure who led protests against the Stamp Act, helped draft the Declaration of Independence, coordinated the peace treaty ending the American Revolution, and co-wrote and signed the U.S. Constitution It is ironic, however, that Franklin is remembered more as the civic figure--the man on the $100 bill--than as the man who invented the stove or the man who formulated his own theories about lightning and electricity. The irony stems from the fact that Franklin often thought of himself as more of a scientist than a political thinker. This self-identification comes through in the Autobiography, which does not discuss the Revolution in any capacity and hardly even refers to events after 1757. Indeed, in the Autobiography, we get a full picture of Franklin as the Renaissance scholar, fascinated by all types of learning and interested in doing whatever he could to make life a little bit better for mankind, based on the notion that the way to please God was by doing good to other men. This interest manifested itself in public service and scientific progress.

The publication of the Autobiography is an interesting story unto itself. Franklin actually stated several times that he did not wish the work to be made totally public. However, based on the number of manuscripts sent out to his various friends before his death, it is very difficult to believe that Franklin died believing that the general public would never see his work, which he never had the chance to revise. Some parts of the Autobiography were printed as early as a month after Franklin's death. The following year, 1791, Part One was released in French, and two years later, it was retranslated back into English by an anonymous author. In 1818, 28 years after Franklin's death, his grandson released an edition containing Parts One, Two and Three (this was the first publication of Part Three). It was not until the John Bigelow edition of 1868 that all four parts of the Autobiography appeared in English. The 20th century saw three major editions of the Autobiography, each one more accurate and complete than its predecessor. The most recent edition, and the one generally accepted as authoritative, was edited by Leo Lemay and P.M. Zall and released in 1981. (Lemay and Zall also wrote a comprehensive study of the publication history of the Autobiography which is only excerped here.)

There are a number of "firsts" associated with the Autobiography. It is considered the first popular self-help book ever published. It was the first and only work written in American before the 19th century that has retained bestseller popularity since its release. It was the first major secular American autobiography. It is also the first real account of the American Dream in action as told from a man who experienced it firsthand. This form would be copied numerous times throughout American history, most notably by such writers as Horatio Alger.

Nevertheless, despite its groundbreaking accomplishments, the Autobiography has been attacked by numerous critics throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The most notable of these attacks was delivered by D.H. Lawrence in 1923, who accused Franklin of being lost in his own quirky optimism; Lawrence argues that Franklin should have concerned himself with the darker aspects of humanity. Lawrence even proposed an alternate list of the 13 virtues as a means of both parodying and criticizing Franklin. The German sociologist Max Weber also condemned Franklin's work on sociological grounds as being blindly capitalistic. In modern times, many critics have found fault with Franklin's arrogance versus his commitment to humility. Nevertheless, the Autobiography remains an important look into the history and sociology of 18th century America. Franklin in many ways embodies the Enlightenment spirit, and may even be thought of as the first prototypical "American."

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