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The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin

Analysis

Part Three, third section, and Part Four

Study Question

Undoubtedly, the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is riddled with faults. It is very muddled, particularly towards the end. It was not written in a continuous stretch, but rather pasted together out of separate fragments that were written years apart from one another; often, the author could not remember what he had even written in the previous sections. The work often takes an arrogant, condescending tone, yet it praises the virtue of humility. And perhaps most egregious of all, the part of Ben's life with the most historical significance--the American Revolution--is entirely omitted from the work. There is no real mention of events after 1760, 15 years before the outbreak of war. At that year the Autobiography simply stops.

A natural questions to ask, then, is, "Why are we still reading this tangled, sometimes difficult and frequently esoteric work over 200 years after it was written?" There are several reasons, one of which is because it establishes in literary form the first example of the fulfillment of the American Dream. Franklin demonstrates the possibilities of life in the New World through his own rise from the lower middle class as a youth to one of the most admired men in the world as an adult. Furthermore, he asserts that he achieved his success through a solid work ethic. He proved that even undistinguished persons in Boston can, through industry, become great figures of importance in America. When we think of the American Dream today--the ability to rise from rags to riches through hard work--we are usually thinking of the model set forth by Franklin in this autobiography.

A second reason why the Autobiography remains a classic is for historical reasons. The work was one of the premier autobiographies in the English language. While they abound today in Barnes and Nobles all over the world, the autobiography as a literary form had not emerged at the time Franklin lived, at least not in non-religious format. His autobiography defined a secular literary tradition; he established the autobiography as a work that is meant to not only tell about a person's own life but also to educate the reader in ways to better live life. This format has been modified throughout American history, but it is safe to say that such classics as Frederick Douglass' Narrative and Henry Adams' The Education of Henry Adams owe much of their style and format to the tradition established by Franklin. Part Two of the Autobiography, complete with its list of virtues and ways in which one can achieve them, has influenced millions of readers over the last two centuries. It also helped spawn the genre of the mainstream self-help book.

Also, the Autobiography tells us today what life was like in 18th century America. Naturally, the story is told from the perspective of only one person, but in an age when literacy was low and writing not widespread, any surviving documents are of value to historians who wish to learn how people lived from day to day. Specifics of life in colonial America abound in the book, and this is invaluable information to anyone wishing to learn more about that time period. Of course, one must always keep in mind that life for Franklin was not like life for everyone else; he represents only one person out of many thousands.

Franklin's Autobiography is also a reflection of 18th century idealism. Often called the Age of Reason, the 18th century was the age of men such as John Locke and Isaac Newton. Intellectualism flourished along with scientific inventions and advances in political thought. Many people held to the optimistic belief that man could be perfected through scientific and political progress. Franklin ascribes to these beliefs partially, and Part Two of the Autobiography shows him trying to live them out.

Perhaps the Autobiography has most endured because, despite its muddled nature, it is the preeminent work that mythologizes a hero of the American Revolution. Franklin is often introduced to elementary school children as a Renaissance man, someone who seemed to master all fields of knowledge--he was, among other things, scientist, inventor, statesman and writer. The Autobiography is the only enduring token that enshrines all the facets of his diverse nature; it presents Americans today with a great hero from the past who helped establish the tradition of the American Dream. Numerous critics have often called Franklin the "first American"; his autobiography provides a good example of why.

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