Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)

    Contributing Editor: David M. Larson

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    The primary problem involved in teaching Benjamin Franklin in an American literature course is persuading students to view Franklin as a writer. The myth surrounding Franklin and the fact that he writes in genres many students view as informational rather than literary keep students from viewing Franklin's works as literature. In order to persuade students to treat Franklin as a writer, it is useful to demonstrate through literary analysis that issues of personae, organization, irony, style, and so forth are as applicable to writing that deals with factual information as they are to poetry, fiction, or drama. In teaching the Autobiography, instructors should keep in mind that it is helpful to have students approach it as though it were a picaresque novel; they can then bring to bear upon the work the techniques that they have developed for analyzing fiction.

    Students usually respond to and are rather disturbed by the protean quality of Franklin's personality and the variety of his achievement. They want the "real" Franklin to stand up and make himself known, and they want to know how he accomplished so much.

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    Franklin's contribution to the creation of an American national identity is perhaps the most important theme that needs to be emphasized. In connection with this, the students can discuss his role in the shift in the American consciousness from an otherworldly to a this-worldly viewpoint. Franklin's abandonment of Puritanism in favor of the enlightenment's rationalism reflects a central shift in American society in the eighteenth century. In addition, his works reflect the growing awareness of America as a country with values and interests distinct from those of England--a movement that, of course, finds its climax in the Revolution. Franklin's participation in the growing confidence of the eighteenth century that humanity could, through personal effort and social reform, analyze and deal with social problems reveals the optimism and self-confidence of his age, as do his scientific achievements. His belief that theory should be tested primarily by experience not logic also reflects his age's belief that reason should be tested pragmatically. Perhaps most important, in the Autobiography Franklin creates not only the classic story of the self-made man but also attempts to recreate himself and his career as the archetypal American success story. Since such varied writers as Herman Melville (Israel Potter, "Bartleby, the Scrivener," and Benito Cereno), Mark Twain, Thoreau (the "Economy" chapter of Walden), William Dean Howells (The Rise of Silas Lapham), and F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby) respond to the myth Franklin creates, the Autobiography can be used as a basis for examining the question of what it means to be an American and what the dominant American values are. Given the current debate over multiculturalism, a discussion of Franklin's career as statesman and writer as an attempt to create a unified American identity--and thus to suppress the multicultural elements in the emerging nation--should prove provocative. When placed in context with the works of Crèvecoeur and Jefferson, Franklin's writings should help students understand why, in the later eighteenth century, the shedding of ethnic and religious tradition and the embracing in their place of a national identity based on shared ideas are seen by many progressive intellectuals as ways to free the individual from the constricting hand of the repressive past.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    Franklin must be viewed as essentially an eighteenth-century writer. The eighteenth century's didacticism, its refusal to limit literature to belles lettres, its ideal of the philosophe or universal genius, and its emphasis on the rhetoric of persuasion all need emphasis. In this connection, students need to become familiar with the use of personae in eighteenth-century writing, with both straightforward and satiric means of rhetorical persuasion, and with the ideal of the middle style in English prose. In addition, students studying Franklin need to become familiar with the conventions of political and other persuasive writing, with those of scientific writing, with those of the letter, and, especially, with the conventions of satire and autobiography in the period. Since for most students the eighteenth century is foreign territory and since the study of eighteenth-century writers has especially been neglected in American literature, students need to learn the ways in which the ideals and practice of literature in Franklin's age differ from the romantic and post-romantic works with which most of them are more familiar.

    Original Audience

    Since almost all of Franklin's writing is occasional, prompted by a specific situation and written for a particular audience, a consideration of situation and audience is crucial for understanding his work. Each of the satires, for example, is designed for a particular audience and situation. Also, Poor Richard's Almanac can nly be appreciated when it is viewed as a popular publication for a group of nonliterary farmers and mechanics. In contrast, Franklin's French bagatelles are written for a very sophisticated audience who would savor their complex persona and ambiguously ironic tone. The Autobiography is designed not merely for Franklin's contemporaries but for posterity as well. Consequently, one of the most interesting features of the study of Franklin as a writer is an examination of the ways in which he adapts his style, tone, organization, and personae to a variety of audiences and situations.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    Franklin can usefully be compared to a host of different writers. The traditional comparison between Franklin and his Puritan predecessors remains useful. For example, while Puritan spiritual autobiographies emphasize their authors' dependence upon God for grace and salvation and their inability to achieve virtue without grace, Franklin's Autobiography focuses on his own efforts to learn what is virtuous in this world and to put his discoveries to use in his life. Franklin retains the Puritan concern for self-improvement but removes its otherworldly orientation. Similarly, Cotton Mather's and Franklin's views of the importance of benevolence can usefully be compared and contrasted. And Edwards's thought, with its attempt to understand this world in the light of Puritan assumptions about God and his divine scheme for humanity, can be contrasted with Franklin's, which focuses on this world, largely ignores the next, and sees morality and experience as more important than faith.

    Franklin's works also can be compared to those of the great eighteenth-century English prose writers. In his preference for reasonableness, common sense, and experience over emotion or speculation, Franklin shows his indebtedness to the English writers of the early eighteenth century and to the new scientific spirit promoted by the Royal Society. Franklin's style owes much to the example of Defoe and Addison and Steele; his satiric practice--especially his mastery of the creation of diverse personae and, at times, his use of irony--reflects his familiarity with Swift's satire, even though Franklin's effects are very different.

    And Franklin's ideas, persuasive methods, assumptions, and empirical bent can be compared to and contrasted with those of his great British contemporary and pamphlet opponent, Samuel Johnson. Also, Franklin's achievements in such diverse fields as science, literature, politics, and diplomacy can be compared to the achievements of the eighteenth-century philosophers, such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot, with whom he was classed in his own age.

    Finally, it is useful to compare Franklin's stylistic and persuasive methods and his intellectual assumptions in relation to his younger contemporary, Jefferson.

    It is useful at some point to discuss the ways in which contemporary assumptions about literature differ from those of Franklin and affect our response to his works and the reasons Franklin has not traditionally been given the same degree of attention in American literature courses that such figures as Swift and Johnson have in British literature courses. Such topics can lead to a discussion of the formation of canon.

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing

    The study questions that are useful before students read Franklin depend entirely on the works that they have read previously. Since students in a historical survey of American literature usually approach Franklin after reading heavily in Puritan literature, ask questions that force students to confront the similarities and the differences between Franklin and his Puritan predecessors. If most students have had a British literature survey, ask questions that encourage them to pinpoint some of the similarities and differences between Franklin and such eighteenth-century writers as Swift, Defoe, and Samuel Johnson.

    With Franklin, paper topics can be historical (focusing on Franklin's contribution to any number of events or ideas), comparative (comparing Franklin's works to those of American, British, or European writers), cultural (focusing on Franklin's pertinence to American culture at any stage past the eighteenth century), or narrowly literary (focusing on any number of facets of Franklin's artistry as a writer). The success of a topic depends largely on the extent to which it ties in with the approach taken by the teacher during the course.


    The headnote contains a list of useful books. In addition, the following works might be helpful.


    Buxbaum, Melvin. Benjamin Franklin: 1721-1983: A Reference Guide, 2 vols. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983, 1988.

    Lemay, J. A. Leo. The Canon of Benjamin Franklin, 1722-1776: New Attributions and Reconsiderations. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1986.

    Other Secondary Material

    Buxbaum, Melvin. Critical Essays on Benjamin Franklin. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987.

    Larson, David M. "Benjamin Franklin's Youth, His Biographers, and the Autobiography." The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 119 (July 1995): 203-223.

    Lemay, J. A. Leo. "Benjamin Franklin." In Major Writers of Early American Literature, edited by Everett Emerson. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

    Levin, David. "The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin: Puritan Experimenter in Life and Art." Yale Review 53 (December 1963): 258-75.

    Lynen, John F. "Benjamin Franklin and the Choice of a Single Point of View." In The American Puritan Imagination: Essays in Revaluation, edited by Sacvan Bercovitch. London: Cambridge University Press, 1974.

    Sayre, Robert F. The Examined Self: Benjamin Franklin, Henry Adams, Henry James. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964.

    Wright, Esmond. Benjamin Franklin: His Life as He Wrote It. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990.