Undoubtedly, the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is far from perfect in terms of its uneven writing. It can be quite muddled, particularly towards the end. Much of this is because it was not written in a continuous stretch, but rather pasted together out of separate fragments that Franklin wrote years apart from one another. Often, it seems as though the author did not remember what he had even written in the previous sections. At many points throughout the Autobiography, Franklin takes an arrogant, condescending tone—even as it simultaneously praises the virtue of humility. But perhaps surprising aspect of all is that the part of Franklin’s life with the most historical significance—the American Revolution—is entirely omitted from the work. In fact, there is no real mention of events after 1760, about 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?” It turns out that there are are several several valid reasons. One is because it establishes in literary form the first example of the fulfillment of what would later come to called 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 can, through hard work, become great figures of importance in America. When the American Dream is referenced today—the ability to rise from rags to riches through hard work—it is usually thought of something very close to the model set forth by Franklin in his Autobiography.
A second reason why the Autobiography remains a classic is for historical and literary reasons. The work is one of the best-known autobiographies in the English language. While autobiographies abound in bookstores all over the world today, it had not fully emerged as a literary form at the time Franklin lived, at least not in non-religious format. (Religious autobiographies go back as far as St. Paul’s epistles in the New Testament and St. Augustine’s Confessions.)
Franklin’s 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’s The Education of Henry Adams owe much of their style and format to the tradition established by Franklin. A check of any bestsellers list today will invariably include so-called “self-help” books. 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.
Another reason for the continued relevance of Franklin’s Autobiography is that it tells us today a great deal about 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 his Autobiography shows him trying to live them out.
Perhaps the Autobiography has most endured because, despite its inconsistent writing, 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. His Autobiography is the only enduring token that enshrines all the facets of his diverse nature. It presents Americans today with a hero from the past who helped establish the tradition of the American Dream.