The second issue I want to tackle is the question of the uses of writing. Specifically, I want to look at why Franklin wanted to consult the materials of personal experience to compose a four-part memoir.  Franklin is the worst sort of nerd, the worst sort of pointy-headed intellectual—what he does, all his life, is read and write.  The rest of his life comes and goes, but reading and writing he does non-stop, at every point in his life.  It’s an instrument for his advancement throughout his life, it’s the way he meets people, it’s the way he gains patronage, and it’s the way that he enlists allies for projects.  Also, he just couldn’t help himself.  He should have been going to church but he found himself a snug little corner where nobody would notice him, and he read.  He read voraciously.   

Many of us also have a sense that one of the real uses of writing is to get inside oneself, to explore one’s ideas, to come to some sort of self-knowledge.  So if that’s a real purpose of personal writing, one would think that Franklin’s autobiography would have a pretty clear connection to self-knowledge.  He’s written four parts, a couple of hundred pages: who is he?  You can’t write that many pages without revealing something of yourself, even if you hope not to, and of course most autobiographers intend to come clean—they intend to reveal themselves.  What can you learn about Franklin in his two-hundred page memoir?

In fact, I would certainly argue that Franklin is writing much more to conceal than to reveal.  Why write to conceal?  Something is happening here: it may not be self-revelation, it may not be self-discovery, but something is impelling him to write something that is not a political tract, or arguments for a paper currency, or about other issues of public life.  This is a detour, something in another vein altogether.  He’s chosen to write about himself, but say remarkably little about himself.  He’s clearly fearful of intimacy, there’s no question about that. This is a man who’s got a dozen aphorisms that all make clear that intimacy worries him a lot: “Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead” or “Fish and visitors stink after three days.” He’s not about to let us get all that close to him, or know his inmost thoughts.  But then I come back to the question, why sit down and write this, especially when you’re an old man, tormented by your gout?

Let me propose to you that what we have in the Autobiography is not somebody looking to get deeper into himself, not someone who was particularly interested in getting inside himself at all.  In fact, his writing is an endless array of efforts to get outside himself.  Not to conceal himself—that presumes that there is a self, that he recognizes, that he knows very well, and that he wants nobody else to know.  That may have been true in Boston, when he knew that he was heterodox, when he knew that he was an unbeliever, but that’s not what he’s interested in anymore, it seems to me.  What he wants to do is get outside himself and into others.  It’s no accident that he writes endlessly under pseudonyms.  The first writing that he ever does is as “Silence Dogood” and he writes about it the Autobiography.  Think of the audacity of this: you’ve got a 16 year old male adolescent who’s never spent a day of his life outside of Boston, writing in the voice of a middle aged rural woman.  There’s virtually nothing in the persona that he creates that he knows a thing about and yet he makes that voice work for an extended string of essays with virtually nobody guessing.  For the rest of his life, he writes under pseudonyms—some of his best stuff, “Polly Baker,” is again written as a woman.  He’s constantly writing out of his age—older when he’s younger, younger when he’s older—he’s writing out of his gender, he’s writing out of his social class, and he’s writing out of his geographic place.  The most famous thing he ever wrote is Poor Richard’s Almanac, under the name Richard Saunders, another fictive creation who couldn’t be more distant from him.  Poor Richard is an astrologer: Franklin could not have had any more contempt for anything in the world than the bogus science that astrology represented. Poor Richard is a henpecked husband: the reason he’s doing the almanac is that his wife is badgering him that his astrology doesn’t bring in enough money, so he’s got to get into a second line of work so she can have some money to purchase fineries. Poor Richard is clearly impoverished: Franklin by the time he’s doing this is doing very nicely. 

Franklin plays incessantly with other identities.  Not just because he’s got a modern sensibility (though he does) but also because that is the nature of the civic life that he’s urging on people.  He’s encouraging people to get into other people’s point of view, to understand other people’s perspective, to see the world in their terms. These endless pseudonyms are exercises in learning sympathy, exercises in seeing things from another standpoint.  He sees this as absolutely essential to the good life in a democracy.  Of course, you don’t have to do this if you want to just look out for number one and be obtuse and oblivious to where other people are coming from.  But Franklin’s also discovered in Philadelphia that this the only way to live in a pluralistic multicultural society—if you maintain integrity, if you just maintain one fixed point of view and never appreciate where other people differ from your point of view then you’ll never be effective and you’ll never get your message across. If you talk in exactly the same way to Germans and to English and to Irish and to Scots and all the rest, you’re going to leave most of them cold.  You’ve got to figure out what the Germans are like, what they value and what their taboos are, and what their aspirations and their fetishes are, because that’s different from what the Scotch Irish are going to be like, and that’s different again from what the African Americans are going to be like. Everybody’s got their own way of seeing things, their own way of coming at the world.

In Boston, where there’s orthodoxy, you’ve got two choices, you can either be orthodox or you can be heterodox.  If you’re heterodox, they’re going to make mincemeat of you.  They hung people on the square, they stoned them to death, and they pressed them to death. But in Philadelphia, there is an entirely different situation, and it’s about style, it’s not about integrity.  Franklin learns that style is absolutely crucial.  What he learned is the quality all the quintessential American occupations require: the same respect for other people’s point of view, the same reluctance to intrude your point of view a whole lot on theirs.  It’s what characterizes advertisers, it’s what characterizes salespeople, it’s what characterizes bartenders, and it’s what characterizes good poker players.  All the things that are really iconic and central to American life require the same skills of getting outside yourself, of not privileging your own perspective but privileging the other person’s perspective. 

Part of what this means is that Franklin doesn’t use his writing to teach. He’s convinced, and he says this point-blank in several places, that didacticism will never work and preaching will never work. People will hear it, they may agree, but they won’t do it.  It won’t touch their lives.  The only way you’re going to reach them, the only way you’re going to move them, is by indirection, by setting it up so they can learn for themselves, so that they can sort out the meanings for themselves.  When Franklin gets to the end of the “Way to Wealth,” he says that the audience gathered around Father Abraham delivering this speech full of Poor Richards’ aphorisms treated it like a common sermon—that is to say, they approved the doctrine and went out and did exactly the opposite.  Franklin sees this as the fate that befalls all didactic teaching. 

Now, in part two of the Autobiography, the largest part of it, is the project for moral perfection.

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