RIF: Reading is Fundamental or Reading is Franklin?

Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography and Other Writings.  Selected and Edited with an Introduction by L. Jesse Lemisch. New York and Scarborough: Signet Classic, 1961.

I’m coming to you “live” from near the KFC Yum! Center (actual name!) in downtown Louisville where I’ll be spending the next week or so grading Advanced Placement United States History exams.  I’ve graded exams off and on since 1999 and it’s always an interesting experience.  This year should prove no different as I have been assigned a question whose topic is covered by a book I ALMOST brought off my shelf for the “review project” (Bernard Bailyn’s The New England Merchants in the Seventeenth Century).  Bailyn’s book almost made my criteria for this trip – slim and not to bulky to carry since I’m gone from the office for a week – but I decided to go with a stack of Bedford/St. Martin’s “Brief History with Documents,” some electronic books if necessary, and, at the last minute, a book on memory.

We’ll see how my personal challenge holds up this week given the amount of reading during the day I have to complete, but at least on a travel day like today, I have been able to make a serious dent in my first choice.  Bedford/St. Martin’s also has a version of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, but I went with the older Signet Classic because I liked two things – 1. the way it felt in my hand and 2. Pr. Lemisch’s selection of “other writings.”  In various airports today I added a third “like” – the edition fit nicely into the back pocket of my jeans.

In the introduction, Pr. Lemisch offers readers both a brief biographical sketch of Franklin and background on the autobiography itself.  Among the themes included in the “other writings” section, Lemisch chose Franklin’s thoughts on religion, excerpt’s from Poor Richard (Franklin’s alter ego), as well as examples from Franklin’s scientific and political endeavors.

Franklin’s autobiography is divided into two parts, the first of which reads as a letter to his son, written from England in 1771.  In part one, Franklin explores bits of family lore, including the probable spot of origin of the Franklin surname, the profession of his grandfather, father, and uncles, and the close connection with one of those uncles, his namesake and godfather.

Franklin was born in on Milk Street Boston, Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1706, and died in Philadelphia after a long life in 1790.  Franklin discusses being part of a large family (17 children for Josiah Franklin by two wives) and recalls how it was his father’s intent that this tenth son would be Josiah’s “tithe” to the church (22).  Young Ben was to become a minister and so was sent to what was then called Boston Grammar School (now Boston Latin – alma mater of my grandfather, father, college roommate, and almost an uncle).  The expense was such that Josiah Franklin had to pull his son from school and by age ten, Benjamin was working in the family tallow chandler business (23).

As befits a memoir written some fifty plus years after many of the events described, there is an uneven nature to the stories.  Franklin drops in and out of the story of his life with either nothing, or vast amounts of detail.  For example, he offers a fascinating discussion of how he worked at bettering his writing and vocabulary.  Franklin believed at a young age that he was defeated in a debate not on merit of argument but rather about command of language.  As a result, Franklin collected books and other printed material, reading and altering it to make himself better.  His method was to write short versions of the ideas followed by setting the original aside for a time and then taking up the short versions later in an effort to complete them accurately.  Another strategy was to take the narrative form and turn it into verse, then turn it back into prose.  Franklin believed strongly that such exercises and the sheer amount of reading he did aided him in learning how to arrange his thoughts (27-32).

This particular emphasis on reading made me think back to two things – a 1970s public service announcement and a class I was teaching in the spring of 2001.  The former made clear that reading was the foundation of all learning.  The latter affirmed that argument when a flustered student asked me: “Mr. Aieta, how do you know all this stuff?” and I replied, “I read books.”  Another student in the course, the brightest I have ever taught since I began this profession in 1994, offered a burst of laughter and a knowing smile at my response.

Franklin’s tale includes details about societies he helped sponsor, the origins of fire fighting in Philadelphia, and of course lending libraries.   It is a shame that the nature of his own life, and the history of the colonies interfered with his ability to make a more complete record of his experiences.  Thirteen years pass between the beginning of part two and part one, and then another four years is gone before Franklin completes the second half.

In this latter section, we learn about Franklin’s efforts at temperance, silence, order, and more as well as his views on the famed George Whitefield and the doomed Braddock expedition.  Franklin’s arrival in London in 1757 concludes the autobiography and we are poorer for his not living a bit longer to sketch out his experiences in London and Paris in later years.  Fully 30 more years of experience don’t get their due. Pr. Lemisch’s choice “other writings” round out this wonderful little volume.  We learn methods of frugality from Richard Saunders, all manner of naturalist observations, musical instrument invention (the glass harmonica), his matter of fact regret about having not inoculated son Francos against the small pox. We see the husband at work as well in a series of communications between Benjamin and his wife Deborah.  He is not particularly giving of his affections but in examining these letters, we can see something of the man in question.

In sum I encourage the consumption of Franklin’s autobiography in general.  The reader is all the richer if this particular edition is perused.

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