Franklin’s Autobiography was written at four different times and was left unfinished at his death. In fact, he said before his death that he did not want it to be published, but in fact he had sent copies of it to many friends and, within a month of his death, some parts of it were published in America and in 1791 Part One was published in a French translation. When we consider why Franklin wrote his autobiography, it seems that there was no coherent overall plan, and that in the four sections he had a slightly different purpose in each. The first part (written in 1771 in England) is addressed to his son and consists of a very conventional narrative account of his childhood and youth up to his early twenties. The second part (written in France between 1783 and 1785, when Franklin served as a sort of ambassador to France for the newly-formed American republic) is a detailed examination of his moral and spiritual development, and Franklin’s attempt to reach what he calls “moral perfection.” This section was written because a friend had asked him to put in writing his own personal moral philosophy. It is in this section that he explains why he left New England: he found the Presbyterian Church in New England too restrictive and authoritarian, and liked Philadelphia because it was more cosmopolitan and more religiously tolerant. It is the Second Part that is seen as a guide to self-improvement: Franklin explains how he analyzed his own behaviour to better himself – both as an individual and as a member of society. The third part was written in America in August 1788, and the fourth in the winter of 1789 – 90, but the narrative stops in 1758 – before the events of the American Revolution in which Franklin played a key part – he helped draft the Declaration of Independence, organized the final peace treaty with the British, and co-authored and signed the American Constitution. Frustratingly, there is no account of these events in what he wrote: Franklin died before he had the chance to write about them. Parts Three and Four, unlike Part Two, are a long account of his achievements and successes during the middle era of his life – so in that sense they are very conventional: a celebrity account of achievement and success. Indeed, they were written in response to requests for him to write his memoirs – because of his fame and celebrity. These different times of composition and different motivations help to explain why The Autobiography is a confused and incoherent piece of writing, judged from an aesthetic standpoint.
Franklin was undoubtedly privileged by virtue of his race and gender. It is impossible to imagine a white American woman of that era achieving all the things that Franklin did, and it would have been even more unusual for anyone of non-Anglo-Saxon ethnic background in the America of that time. Indeed, women hardly feature at all in The Autobiography. His socio-economic status and his education level were important, but only as negative factors: Franklin strove to better himself and rise above his socio-economic status and became an autodidact. His intellectual curiosity and inquisitiveness were part of his character and, from a humble socio-economic position with relatively little formal education, he became one of the leading thinkers, civic leaders and scientists of his generation – a figure enjoying world-wide fame by the time of his death. This success is what makes Part Three and Four of The Autobiography sound a little smug to some readers: having praised the virtue of humility in Part Two, Franklin is wholly solipsistic about his accomplishments in Parts Three and Four. His religious upbringing also had a negative effect on him: he found Presbyterianism stifling which precipitated his move to Philadelphia which was a step on the path to self-improvement. Therefore, his religion and his rebellion against it were important factors in shaping his life. Having said that, The Autobiography, although very secular in content and tone, owes something to the Puritan accounts of spiritual growth which had dominated American writing up to that point, and his sense of duty towards his society and his fellow citizens was also a Puritan trait, although Franklin was considerably more tolerant than his Puritan ancestors.
Having admitted that his gender and race allowed Franklin the opportunity to do what he did, it can be argued that his education and socio-economic status were vital factors in the sense that he did everything he could to rise above them. It is for this reason that Part Two (if you like the self-help or self-improvement element of The Autobiography) is seen sometimes as archetypally American and gave rise to the Horatio Alger stories and Fitzgerald’s parody of them in The Great Gatsby. This may be part of the book’s continued appeal – the notion that Franklin was able through sheer hard work and determination to achieve the American Dream – an idea which still retains a popular potency even today. His precision and his pronouncements about profits and loss and credit can also be seen as typically capitalist in their philosophy.
The picture that emerges from The Autobiography is of a man full of intellectual curiosity and a willingness to try anything. His achievements were largely in the field of civil society and science, and his interests were voraciously catholic and largely practical. Apart from contributing to the myth of the American Dream, Franklin might also be seen as an archetypal Yankee – hands-on, down-to-earth, keen to find a practical solution to any problem. For this reason, Parts Three and Four can be justified as evidence of the philosophy of self-help and self-improvement that Franklin reached in Part Two. To be fair to Franklin too, although there is an air of the egotistical about his tone in Parts Three and Four, he was always interested in how he, as an individual citizen, could improve himself, but also the workings of the society around him, and ways in which the lives of ordinary Americans might be improved by better public systems. He invented the stove; he established a public library in Philadelphia which was the prototype of public libraries all over the English-speaking world; his scientific experiments into the causes of fires lead to the creation of a public fire service in Philadelphia; his experiments with lightning rods paved the way for future developments in the electrical sciences; he established an academy in Philadelphia which would become the model for state universities all over America. Overall, despite its flaws, The Autobiography is an account of an American hero’s life and times.
Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography. Pages 538 – 610. Baym, Nina. (Ed.) The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume A, 6th edition. 2003. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.