All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
For centuries the words of William Shakespeare’s character Jaques in As You Like It have resounded with audiences and readers. Surely these words also resounded with philosophers, writers, and great thinkers such as Benjamin Franklin or F. Scott Fitzgerald. Because Franklin spent the vast majority of his life immersed in literature of diverse forms, it has become almost impossible to view his Autobiography as nothing more than a historical document. Taking into account Franklin’s massive corpus of writing which he had already established before the first part of Autobiography was written in 1771, to assume that he had not carefully crafted his own representative character would be foolish. Though based on true experience, Franklin’s presented self is as meticulously measured and created as Shakespeare’s Jaques or Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, with the purpose of giving Franklin a greater deal of control over his legacy.
Great writing is very much the art of selective imitation. Franklin, on the very first page of his narrative, presents the idea that he has recorded his life story because his posterity may find some of it “fit to be imitated,” (Franklin 935). Poor Richard might agree that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery; indeed, Franklin flatters himself by suggesting that his life is worthy of imitation. However, most would not be so bold as to contradict this claim. He even humanizes himself by admitting to such vanity. To call Franklin a solely vain man, based on his self-representation in Autobiography, would be to do him an injustice, as he also gives examples of his prudence and humility in the narrative.
Accounting the events of Franklin’s early life serves to elevate his accomplishments by highlighting his humble beginnings. His presentation of young Benjamin Franklin striking out on his own bears a certain pathos whose rhetorical purpose is open to interpretation. Seventeen- year-old Franklin, spurned by his brother, James, and scorned by his home town of Boston, Franklin’s choice to go it alone is a powerfully emotional one. Coming after and account of being beaten by James, Franklin takes the moral high ground by reserving judgement upon his brother, saying, “Perhaps I was too saucy and provoking,” (Franklin 948). This seeming reservation is evocative of two other characters from history which in section three of Autobiography Franklin claims as singularly worthy of imitation: Jesus and Socrates.
Through careful diction, Franklin maintains himself throughout Autobiography as a picture of restrained judgement. Similarly, as Nick Carraway on page one of chapter of “The Great Gatsby” says of himself, “I’m inclined to reserve all judgements,” (Fitzgerald). However similar to the character of Carraway Franklin’s constructed self may be, a strong case could also be made that he shares much in common with Jay Gatsby.
Both Franklin and Gatsby were very organized in the attainment of their goals early on in life. On page 944 of Autobiography, Franklin gives account of his methods of study and the daily schedule in which these activities took place. A reader cannot help but draw a parallel between that description and the fictional account of Gatsby’s daily planner. The similarities end when Gatsby fails to fulfill his ultimate goals after resorting to dishonest means of acquiring wealth. Conversely, Franklin describes how he gained recognition from the Governor of Pennsylvania through his own merits.
Humility and the organization of personal motivation were only two of the manifold qualities Franklin chooses to describe himself to possess. “His life history can in fact be told in summary as an enumeration of virtues and their effects,” (Seavey 94). Reading Autobiography through this lens lends itself to the study of how Franklin uses his own personal narrative to demonstrate the efficacy of the application of the virtues which he claims to subscribe to.
Another of Franklin’s described virtues, one which has almost totally fallen out of grace in America, is frugality. By cutting his diet down to simple necessity, a sixteen year old Franklin had excess money with which he could buy books. “Dispatching presently my light Repast… I made greater Progress from that greater Clearness of Head and quicker Apprehension,” says Franklin (944). This early display of thrift gives credence to his claim of having been able to purchase books on logic, grammar, rhetoric, and importantly, Locke’s Human Understanding. The Franklin family was certainly not well to do, so Franklin’s frugality serves as an explanation as to how he was able to better educate himself and rise above the status of his tradesman-oriented family members.
Franklin then depicts himself as a young soldier of the Enlightenment, armed to the teeth with the tools of learning, both new and Classical. Attempting to emphasize the wisdom of his reservation with words at the time of writing “Autobiography”, he tells of how in his younger days he used to take delight in practicing the Socratic Method in order to frustrate his superiors. Forsaking this practice of his younger days, Franklin then presents readers with an important tenet of his philosophy regarding conversational subtlety. If men should be taught as if you taught them not, then he has implanted the idea in the head of the reader that the perusal of “Autobiography” should be an educational experience. So, Franklin has declared himself an example, shaping how he should be remembered as an educator, all while taking the guise of an old man who has earned the right to indulge the inclination to ramble about the past. In this way he manages to establish authorial distance even when writing about his own life.
Painting himself deftly as a character within the context of an interesting narrative makes Franklin’s Autobiography sometimes read like a good novel. This quality is what makes the work, as The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Franklin says, “Understood as a significant literary performance, amenable to all kinds off literary theory… and resistant at all turns to any kind of oversimplified reading” (Arch 169). Of much importance is the affinity displayed on page 949 for John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and other early forms of the novel. In fact, “[Franklin’s] first Collection was of John Bunyan’s Works, in separate little volumes” (Franklin 941). His early enchantment with fictional literature was a quality which he fostered for the rest of his living days, rather than letting it die out to be replaced by extensive knowledge of Law like some of his contemporaries may have done.
Imagination and vision, given direction by his studies of Enlightenment ideas, gave Franklin the ability to greater view himself in the context of his age. Franklin’s perspective, his ability to be both within and without, shows clear awareness of his role as a character on the stage of life. Through writing Autobiography, he took the primary role as sculptor of his own place in history by selectively choosing and portraying which of the many events of his life should be remembered by posterity.
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