Anatomy of an Autobiography
Edited transcript of a lecture delivered on April 5, 2006, at 6:00 p.m., at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies.
This lecture was part of the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary Lecture Series, made possible through the generosity of the John Templeton Foundation.
Tonight’s discussion will revolve around examining the Autobiography and the question of personal writing.
The first issue is the question of memoir as a way of analyzing, shaping, and communicating a coherent story from the materials of lived experience. I want to ask you whether theAutobiography of Benjamin Franklin is all that coherent of a story. Is it a coherent at all? If it is coherent, how? What is the story that you see it telling?
Rags to riches, you might say. Alright—except Franklin’s not all that ragged to begin with. He’s got a father who supports seventeen kids, finds apprenticeships—which are expensive—for all of them, or dowries for the females. Franklin never gets rich: in the Autobiography he says he’s got a modest income that he can retire on. He doesn’t want more, and he doesn’t need more. He can never take the lead in any of his civic projects because he’s not nearly rich enough. You’ve got to have a rich guy at the front of these types of projects, and he won’t suffice. He’s got other reasons for not wanting to be at the head of these projects that are much more devious, but the barefaced one is that he’s just not a commanding enough figure economically. He’s not in the top ten percent for income on the tax lists that we’ve got. So this story is not quite rags, and it sure isn’t riches.
He begins, “Dear Son,” and then once every blue moon he remembers that he’s talking to his son—but it’s really only a half-dozen momentary effusions. Even in the first part it’s clear that he’s not talking to his son, and that he’s found a different audience. By the time he writes the second, third, and fourth parts, he’s literally not talking to his son. They have broken over the Revolution, and the Autobiography is no longer a letter to his son, even in mock-epistolary form.
Are we prepared to say that Franklin’s Autobiography is incoherent? It’s been suggested that there’s a coherence of authorial style in Franklin’s intent to extract meaning out of all the different stories that comprise the Autobiography. But if we’re talking about aesthetic, writerly coherence, what do you make of that cockamamie intrusion between parts one and two—the two letters from the two merchants, James and Vaughan? What are they doing in an artistically integrated memoir? What on earth is that about?
Of course, they serve as an excuse to resume writing—he’s laid off for 13 years, between the first part and the second part. Those two letters just fall all over themselves to say, “You need to continue doing this, as an exemplar to youth, as a model of what they can be. And that model is an example of virtue, of goodness, of morality.” But is the first part of the Autobiography really a model of virtue? It’s just one con-trick after the other. The first part is the literary history of America’s first juvenile delinquent. Nobody is doing good in that first part, and everybody’s ripping everybody else off, everybody’s looking to scramble to the top. Franklin’s friends are betraying him, he’s betraying them, they’re stealing money from each other, they’re stealing girlfriends from each other, and they’re stealing identities from each other. Franklin’s first story in the whole thing is stealing the stones from the wharf in Boston, and it’s theft and scam, and scheme and duplicity non-stop from them on—some of it for good purpose and some of it for the sheer fun of it. When the Governor of Pennsylvania sends this innocent punk nineteen-year old kid on a wild goose chase to London, promising that Franklin’s going to have letters of credit waiting for him, the Governor has not got the slightest intention in the world of having letters of credit waiting for him. It amuses him, sadistically, to strand this poor kid in London. He didn’t know that he was taking him away from his betrothed, from Deborah—but it would have pleased him even more if he had known. Franklin has no prospect of getting back – and no interest in getting back. He’s putting no money aside – he tells us he’s living hand to mouth the entire time, still ripping everybody off, still being ripped off by everybody.
So what on earth are James and Vaughan talking about when they say, “You’ve got to continue this wonderful example you’ve set for the kids,” when the first part—which is all they’ve read because it’s all he’s written, is nothing of the sort. They’re talking about Franklin the human being that they know, but not about those pages that now become part one of our four part Autobiography.
Franklin’s story starts with a purely democratic duplicity: looking out for number one; scheming; struggling to advance at other people’s expense; scrambling heedless of any moral concern. I would propose to you that there is a coherence to this Autobiography—that there is a story to this story—and it’s the story of Franklin discovering that this behavior doesn’t work. Or rather, Franklin discovers that it works, but that it doesn’t satisfy.
I think that what he’s doing in part one is that he’s giving you the groundwork. He’s giving you the foundation of American life. That is the common existence of Americans—that scramble, that heedless quest to pleasure yourself, to serve your own interests. He tells us this in a host of ways. For example, he tells us this with regard to religion, with the stuff that he writes about his early religion. Right at the beginning he talks about transmigration of souls, later on he tells us how his heterodoxy was making him very unacceptable in Boston and he could see that he had better get out of there because he certainly wasn’t going to have much of a career with people thinking that he was a smart-ass, and certainly not a believer in the things that they held sacred.
Then he describes his conversation, and that’s a story that runs through three phases in the Autobiography itself. In the first phase, he’s just the smartest kid on the block, and he takes on his elders, and he makes mincemeat of them in debates over political and religious issues because he’s smarter than they are. He rejoices in this kind of combat, he rejoices in defeating them, and it’s all about winning, losing, and vanquishing—and he wins much more than he loses. Then he discovers the Socratic Method. In the Socratic Method, you no longer just come at your opponent with fangs bared, instead you lure the opponent in with a series of apparently innocuous questions and you get them enmeshed in a morass of contradictions, and then you pull the string and you expose them, hopefully now in front of half a dozen people who have now gathered to watch the scene. He’s humiliated and you’re triumphant—it seems as though it’s not so combative or confrontational, but it’s really just a superior technology of combat—a more clever sort of sadism.
And then, when he comes to Philadelphia, he creates the Junto, and it begins to be in trouble—in fact, it’s in danger of going down the tubes. Franklin puts in a new set of rules for their weekly meetings, in which nobody is allowed to contradict anybody else, and nobody is allowed to be dogmatic and say, “This is so!” You’re only allowed to ask questions or say, “It seems to me that this might be so.” The Junto takes a turn for the better and begins to revive, and at the same time, in his own conversation, he says he takes that identical turn. A revelation dawns on him in Philadelphia—the revelation that conversation might not be for winning and losing. It might be for communicating, and sharing, and cooperating, and learning something. He realizes that he’s never going to get any of those benefits if he’s just beating everybody who’s not as smart as he is, and although they may not be as smart as he is, they do have some things that they know that he doesn’t know, and he does need their help.
That story just repeats itself in a series of metaphors and episodes, throughout the entire Autobiography. The Autobiography’s plot is a movement away from an unsatisfying scramble for personal interest and personal advancement, toward the realization that life is only going to work if you cooperate, if you have some regard for the common welfare as well as for your personal welfare, and an understanding that being the biggest fish in a small pond is not nearly as gratifying—not nearly as rewarding, literally—as being a middling-size fish in the ocean. So that, for example, if you can make Philadelphia far more prosperous than Boston or New York, then the fourth richest carpenter in Philadelphia will be richer than the richest carpenter in Boston, and everyone will benefit. There’s personal advantage in it, but there’s also a way of life. Its all about understanding that living endlessly with other people exploiting you and you exploiting other people, and nobody caring about justice and nobody caring about cooperating just isn’t a very satisfying way to live.
Franklin’s Autobiography is a conversion narrative, and I think that he puts it that way—not in one grand, eye-opening moment, but in a series of bursts, so you’ve got to piece this story together.
We need to also consider the question of what he leaves out,