The final question I’d like to address is about reflection and revision in the writing process. Franklin describes early on in the first part how he taught himself to write. It’s a fascinating process in which as a young kid he comes across these issues of The Spectator, the Addison and Steele collaboration, and he thinks this the best writing he’s ever encountered. He wants to be able to write like that, so he figures out strategies to try to learn from Addison and Steele, and he runs a lot of variations on these, one as interesting as the next. The most basic one is that he abstracts these essays, he takes out key threads, key thoughts, key transitions, and distils them into some straightforward rather arid prose that just catches the kernel of the ideas and their succession. Then he goes away for a few days, comes back and looks at the abstract, and tries to rewrite the essay. Having rewritten it in a more elaborated, refined, polished form, he then compares what he’s done with what Addison or Steele did, and learns from his shortfall. He’s simply not as elegant as they are, he’s not as controlled as they are, he’s not as polished as they are, but he’s learning to refine his prose and picking up tricks from how they handle the ideas—that the ideas are not just the inmost kernel of the idea, reduced to an abstraction, but that it is the way in which the idea is couched, the style in which it is presented, the transitions, that make those essays effective. Then he does a whole lot of other nifty things—he transposes them to poetry and then back to prose to expand his vocabulary, and again to break from the original in order to come back to see how well they really did. He tells us that he learned a ton and once in a while he had the gratification of thinking that actually, in this turn of phrase or that, he might have even exceeded Addison or Steele.
What’s going on in that rewriting of the Spectator essays? What does this tell us about what Franklin thinks about writing, and about reflection and revision? He’s certainly treating writing as an art, and he’s learning as a trainee artist would, by copying the masters. Learning to write from the Spectator presumes that there is some optimal form of writing, that Addison and Steele are at the pinnacle and nobody will surpass them, so the only thing you can do is approximate as nearly as possible to that wondrous climax that they represent of English prose. What Franklin is striving for is to resemble Addison and Steele—their ease, their grace, and their consummate command of a pose of gentility and assurance. There is no ideal in any of that endeavour that Franklin engages in of originality, of uniqueness, or of expressiveness. He’s not aiming to reveal his inmost soul—there’s nothing of the romantic in any of any of this and there’s no sense of a personal style. The Addison and Steele ideal is of an impersonal style, of something that cannot be identified as distinctively and specially yours, and I think that’s very much Franklin’s aspiration until the end of his writing days. And so the question on which I would leave you is the question of whether his world is our world, and whether any of us should be thinking of writing like he did—not just because our world is a world of television and images and his world is a world of books and words, in which books and words were magical, but also because Franklin had different ideals about what prose and what print were to accomplish.