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The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin

Study Question

Analysis

Review Quiz

How would you describe Franklin writing style?

A good answer would comment on Franklin's use of humor and his attempts to poke fun at himself so as to not seem arrogant. Moreover, Franklin's style is terse and witty; he usually makes his points using as few words as possible, which in part leads to his tendency to create aphorisms. Franklin's style is predominantly didactic as the Autobiography is intended to be read partly as a self- help manual. Franklin contributed to the development of journalism as type of writing that presents the facts in the order of most important to least important, using as few words as are necessary.

What does the Autobiography tell us about the 18th century?

There are many answers to this question, some of which are mentioned here. First, Franklin shows from a sociological standpoint the possibilities for economic mobility in colonial America. After all, Franklin himself arrived in Philadelphia at 17 years old without a penny to his name, and from those beginnings he worked his way up to being a successful printer, a talented inventor and a Founding Father of America. Second, Franklin's idealism and faith in the betterment of mankind, as well as his Deism and utilitarianism, places him intellectually in the Age of Reason, a time when people often believed optimistically that the world and man could be perfected through science. Religion was also questioned during this age, and that questioning manifests itself in Franklin's philosophy. Franklin's creation of the Junto is a testament to his interest in the importance of debate, another 18th century intellectual ideal. Third, Franklin shows us how people went about their day to day lives in the 1700s. While this isn't a major thrust of the book, we learn about the way apprenticeships worked and how the government operated in the colonies, among a variety of other glimpses into 18th century life.

What is the purpose of the Autobiography, and how does that purpose change throughout the work?

The Autobiography never has one clearly defined audience. Its opening is addressed to William Franklin, Benjamin's son. After approximately eight pages, however, the work becomes a more general account of Franklin's early memories and experiences. In Part Two, the work begins to address an audience specifically interested in self-improvement. Part Two has a particularly didactic tone because it is designed to educate using Franklin himself as a model. Part Three changes tone once again, detailing the events of Franklin's life not so much as highlighting all his major accomplishments so as to enshrine him. The later pages of Part Three seem to be devoted particularly to Franklin's contemporaries who are interested in the details of American history before the Revolution. Franklin's tone reflects the purpose of accounting for the major events of history as Franklin witnessed them and took part in them.

Franklin often struggles to strike a balance between promoting humility and promoting his accomplishments. How successful is he in maintaining this balance?

Discuss Franklin's optimism as a young man versus the diminished optimism he has as an adult looking back on his life. How do the two work together?

Franklin intended the Autobiography to be a unified work; he drew up an outline and tried to stick with it. In what ways does the book seem to be unified? How can one tell that the book was written over the course of 18 years?

What motivates Franklin? Why does he choose to spend so much of his life making things better for his fellow countrymen?

How does Franklin employ humor in the Autobiography? Pick several instances and comment on them.

What are some of the major flaws in the Autobiography? What problems does it face and how do those problems come about?

"Franklin was a shameless self-promoter with numerous achievements, almost all of which were accomplished primarily to gain himself fame and bragging rights. Moreover, he was blindly idealistic, and did not concern himself with Americans not as lucky as himself." Defend or refute this statement.

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