"The first book to belong permanently to literature. It created a man."
-- From the Introduction
Few men could compare to Benjamin Franklin. Virtually self-taught, he excelled as an athlete, a man of letters, a printer, a scientist, a wit, an inventor, an editor, and a writer, and he was probably the most successful diplomat in American history. David Hume hailed him as the first great philosopher and great man of letters in the New World.
Written initially to guide his son, Franklin's autobiography is a lively, spellbinding account of his unique and eventful life. Stylistically his best work, it has become a classic in world literature, one to inspire and delight readers everywhere.
There are no customer reviews available at this time. Would you like to write a review?
December 22, 2003
Number of Print Pages*
Adobe DRM EPUB
* Number of eBook pages may differ. Click here for more information.
Excerpt from The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin
In any discussion of American origins, Benjamin Franklin is a good man to begin with. Years before the United States existed, he started things that his countrymen continue to be proud of -- libraries, civic clubs, volunteer fire departments, effective street lighting, and efficient heating devices. He was solidly American, ingenious, practical, ambitious, and successful. His Autobiography testifies that his feet were firm on the ground, but that he did not stand still. No man of his time went so far, and few of any time have gone farther. But, because he not only started things, but also let it be known that he did, Franklin may sometimes be credited with more than he deserves. That is one reason why he stands confidently at the head of any native literary procession. Talking about himself, he produced his country's best masterpiece.
Like Walt Whitman and Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway, Franklin created a public image so attractive that it obscures the man who made it. Whatever influences of time or place or circumstance combined to produce the successful, whimsical and plain-spoken homespun favorite remembered as Ben Franklin, the projection of this character was a literary exploit of magnitude. "He knew what he was about, this sharp little man," said D. H. Lawrence. "He set up the first dummy American." Certainly Horatio Alger could not have done so well in celebrating the stereotype rise from rags to riches if Franklin had not invented it. It could have bothered neither man that, like almost all of Franklin's devices, the invention was mechanical. This was something never forgotten from his New England boyhood, that everything could be set in a row and counted.
When Thomas Carlyle called him the father of all Yankees, he meant something of that sort, and when Leigh Hunt explained that "Americans are Englishmen with the poetry and romance taken out of them," he meant much the same. Carl Van Doren has spoken of Franklin's magnificent centrality and of the flexible equilibrium of his talents, because, too busy or too wise to become any one thing, Franklin managed all things, including himself, with casual efficiency: "Mind and will, talent and art, strength and ease, wit and grace met in him as if nature had been lavish and happy when he was shaped. Nothing seems to have been left out except a passionate desire, as in most men of genius, to be all ruler, all soldier, all saint, all poet, all scholar, all some one gift or merit or success."
Perhaps in colonial America more than in most places, versatility was a becoming achievement -- combined with self-control, recognition of limits beyond which, as Hemingway later was to explain, no man could successfully venture. Franklin painstakingly defined himself as a man who kept within bounds, discovering such satisfaction in handling what was set before him that he seldom was tempted to stretch for more. Reality was what he could see or feel, even at the end of a kite string, and he was too sensible to suspect that gods of the sky might smite him down in anger. That was what Melville must have meant when he said that Franklin's mind was grave, but never serious.
Rightfully proud of the range of his experience, Franklin was pleased when other people mistook breadth for depth, but he never fooled himself, or let himself down. When something was to be said, he prepared it carefully, so that it could be said well, for Franklin recognized his deficiencies, especially when it came to conversation. He did not extemporize easily. Like Mark Twain, he was best in monologue, skilled at fitting tales to special situations and, if uninterrupted, could spin out a pretty compliment or an effective satire. In temperament a tranquil man, he is not known to have been disturbed by unpleasant dreams, though he had wit enough to invent nighttime fantasies for recitation in flirtatious badinage with appreciative ladies. It did not seem strange to him that French women preferred to be kissed on the neck rather than on cheek or lips where makeup might be disordered.
Contented with surfaces because surfaces served him well, Franklin probably would have understood Melville's admiration for men who dived deeply, even to inevitable failure, but he would not have shared it. Better safe, he might have said, than sorry. He would have been pleased at Melville's description of him as "printer, postmaster, almanac maker, essayist, chemist, orator, tinker, statesman, humorist, philosopher, parlor man, political economist, professor of housewifery, ambassador, projector, maxim-monger, herb-doctor, wit: -- Jack of all trades, master of each and mastered by none -- the type and genius of his land." He might have nodded in sage pretense of understanding when Melville went on to say, "Franklin was everything but a poet"; but surely he would have known exactly what Carl Van Doren meant when a century later he described Franklin as the best writer in America.