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Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (Review)

great-works-4

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin, 1771-1790
150 pp. (varies by publisher)

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
February 2010

All the bio-pics you've ever seen from Hollywood—Walk the Line, Ray, Man On the Moon? Well, you can thank Ben Franklin—he invented the format, along with the Franklin stove, bifocals, and the lightning rod.

You know the pattern—the rise from obscure beginnings, through hard work and adversity, to ultimate success. Horatio Alger's rags-to-riches? Alger followed the narrative arc laid out by Franklin. Not only is Franklin himself an American original, so is his autobiography.

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is one of the world's earliest non-religious memoirs (the genre didn't really exist then). It's also the first articulation of the American Dream, as well as an intimate history of colonial life.

Franklin's story is wonderfully entertaining. He treats us to a blow-by-blow account of the young hero's humble origins in Boston, escape to Philadelphia, and later rise to wealth and fame. He's a scamp—cagey, funny, naive, wise, modest, and arrogant, all at the same time.

Here's a telling passage—the young bachelor is waiting for his impending betrothal to Sarah Read. To stem his impatience, he tells us that...

the hard-to-be-governed passion of youth hurried me frequently into intrigues with low women that "fell in my way" (my emphasis).

Notice how Franklin manages to accept responsibility yet exculpate himself in one sentence—a true politician in the bud.

Once Franklin acquires his fortune as printer, newspaper owner, and author of Poor Richard, he devotes himself to the public good. His energy and inventiveness are astonishing.

Certainly, there are faults with the memoir: a narrative voice that is boastful while claiming humility; some overly long, drawn-out accounts of politics and funding; and a sometimes fragmented tale due to the fact that it was written over a 20-year period. Sadly, Franklin died before he finished, taking us up only to 1760. Thus, we never get his account of the struggle for independence and the passage of the U.S. Constitution.

But, like Harriet Tubman's biography (the 2nd of this month's selections)—if you love biographies, history, and rags-to-riches stories, Ben Franklin is an engaging work. Besides, it's the real thing.

 

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