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«Anatomy of an Autobiography Michael Zuckerman, Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania Edited transcript of a lecture delivered on ...»

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Anatomy of an Autobiography

Michael Zuckerman, Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania

Edited transcript of a lecture delivered on April 5, 2006, at 6:00 p.m., at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies.

This lecture was part of the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary Lecture Series, made possible through the generosity of the John

Templeton Foundation.

Tonight’s discussion will revolve around examining the Autobiography and the question of personal writing.

The first issue is the question of memoir as a way of analyzing, shaping, and communicating a coherent story from the materials of lived experience. I want to ask you whether the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is all that coher- ent of a story. Is it a coherent at all? If it is coherent, how? What is the story that you see it telling?

Rags to riches, you might say. Alright—except Franklin’s not all that ragged to begin with. He’s got a father who supports seventeen kids, finds apprenticeships—which are expensive—for all of them, or dowries for the females.

Franklin never gets rich: in the Autobiography he says he’s got a modest income that he can retire on. He doesn’t want more, and he doesn’t need more. He can never take the lead in any of his civic projects because he’s not nearly rich enough. You’ve got to have a rich guy at the front of these types of projects, and he won’t suffice. He’s got other reasons for not wanting to be at the head of these projects that are much more devious, but the barefaced one is that he’s just not a commanding enough figure economically. He’s not in the top ten percent for income on the tax lists that we’ve got. So this story is not quite rags, and it sure isn’t riches.

He begins, “Dear Son,” and then once every blue moon he remembers that he’s talking to his son—but it’s really only a half-dozen momentary effusions. Even in the first part it’s clear that he’s not talking to his son, and that he’s found a different audience. By the time he writes the second, third, and fourth parts, he’s literally not talking to his son. They have broken over the Revolution, and the Autobiography is no longer a letter to his son, even in mock- epistolary form.

Are we prepared to say that Franklin’s Autobiography is incoherent? It’s been suggested that there’s a coherence of authorial style in Franklin’s intent to extract meaning out of all the different stories that comprise the Autobiography. But if we’re talking about aesthetic, writerly coherence, what do you make of that cockamamie intrusion between parts one and two—the two letters from the two merchants, James and Vaughan? What are they doing in an artistically integrated memoir? What on earth is that about?

Of course, they serve as an excuse to resume writing—he’s laid off for 13 years, between the first part and the sec- ond part. Those two letters just fall all over themselves to say, “You need to continue doing this, as an exemplar to youth, as a model of what they can be. And that model is an example of virtue, of goodness, of morality.” But is the first part of the Autobiography really a model of virtue? It’s just one con-trick after the other. The first part is the literary history of America’s first juvenile delinquent. Nobody is doing good in that first part, and everybody’s ripping everybody else off, everybody’s looking to scramble to the top. Franklin’s friends are betraying him, he’s betraying them, they’re stealing money from each other, they’re stealing girlfriends from each other, and they’re stealing identities from each other. Franklin’s first story in the whole thing is stealing the stones from the wharf in Boston, and it’s theft and scam, and scheme and duplicity non-stop from them on—some of it for good purpose and some of it for the sheer fun of it. When the Governor of Pennsylvania sends this innocent punk nineteen-year old kid on a wild goose chase to London, promising that Franklin’s going to have letters of credit waiting for him, the Governor has not got the slightest intention in the world of having letters of credit waiting for him. It amuses him, sadistically, to strand this poor kid in London. He didn’t know that he was taking him away from his betrothed, from Deborah—but it would have pleased him even more if he had known. Franklin has no prospect of getting back – and no interest in getting back. He’s putting no money aside – he tells us he’s living hand to mouth the entire time, still ripping everybody off, still being ripped off by everybody.

So what on earth are James and Vaughan talking about when they say, “You’ve got to continue this wonderful example you’ve set for the kids,” when the first part—which is all they’ve read because it’s all he’s written, is nothing of the sort. They’re talking about Franklin the human being that they know, but not about those pages that now become part one of our four part Autobiography.

Franklin’s story starts with a purely democratic duplicity: looking out for number one; scheming; struggling to advance at other people’s expense; scrambling heedless of any moral concern. I would propose to you that there is a coherence to this Autobiography—that there is a story to this story—and it’s the story of Franklin discovering that this behavior doesn’t work. Or rather, Franklin discovers that it works, but that it doesn’t satisfy.

I think that what he’s doing in part one is that he’s giving you the groundwork. He’s giving you the foundation of American life. That is the common existence of Americans—that scramble, that heedless quest to pleasure yourself, to serve your own interests. He tells us this in a host of ways. For example, he tells us this with regard to religion, with the stuff that he writes about his early religion. Right at the beginning he talks about transmigration of souls, later on he tells us how his heterodoxy was making him very unacceptable in Boston and he could see that he had better get out of there because he certainly wasn’t going to have much of a career with people thinking that he was a smart-ass, and certainly not a believer in the things that they held sacred.

Then he describes his conversation, and that’s a story that runs through three phases in the Autobiography itself. In the first phase, he’s just the smartest kid on the block, and he takes on his elders, and he makes mincemeat of them in debates over political and religious issues because he’s smarter than they are. He rejoices in this kind of combat, he rejoices in defeating them, and it’s all about winning, losing, and vanquishing—and he wins much more than he loses. Then he discovers the Socratic Method. In the Socratic Method, you no longer just come at your opponent with fangs bared, instead you lure the opponent in with a series of apparently innocuous questions and you get them enmeshed in a morass of contradictions, and then you pull the string and you expose them, hopefully now in front of half a dozen people who have now gathered to watch the scene. He’s humiliated and you’re triumphant—it seems as though it’s not so combative or confrontational, but it’s really just a superior technology of combat—a more clever sort of sadism.

And then, when he comes to Philadelphia, he creates the Junto, and it begins to be in trouble—in fact, it’s in danger of going down the tubes. Franklin puts in a new set of rules for their weekly meetings, in which nobody is allowed to contradict anybody else, and nobody is allowed to be dogmatic and say, “This is so!” You’re only allowed to ask questions or say, “It seems to me that this might be so.” The Junto takes a turn for the better and begins to revive, and at the same time, in his own conversation, he says he takes that identical turn. A revelation dawns on him in Philadelphia—the revelation that conversation might not be for winning and losing. It might be for communicating, and sharing, and cooperating, and learning something. He realizes that he’s never going to get any of those benefits if he’s just beating everybody who’s not as smart as he is, and although they may not be as smart as he is, they do have some things that they know that he doesn’t know, and he does need their help.

That story just repeats itself in a series of metaphors and episodes, throughout the entire Autobiography. The Autobiography’s plot is a movement away from an unsatisfying scramble for personal interest and personal advancement, toward the realization that life is only going to work if you cooperate, if you have some regard for the common welfare as well as for your personal welfare, and an understanding that being the biggest fish in a small pond is not nearly as gratifying—not nearly as rewarding, literally—as being a middling-size fish in the ocean. So that, for example, if you can make Philadelphia far more prosperous than Boston or New York, then the fourth richest carpenter in Philadelphia will be richer than the richest carpenter in Boston, and everyone will benefit. There’s personal advantage in it, but there’s also a way of life. Its all about understanding that living endlessly with other people exploiting you and you exploiting other people, and nobody caring about justice and nobody caring about cooperating just isn’t a very satisfying way to live.

Franklin’s Autobiography is a conversion narrative, and I think that he puts it that way—not in one grand, eye-opening moment, but in a series of bursts, so you’ve got to piece this story together.

We need to also consider the question of what he leaves out, because coherence is always achieved by what you exclude as well as what you include. Franklin writes about nothing beyond his middle age. He writes nothing about the Revolution, in which he plays an enormous part by galvanizing Pennsylvania (which was the decisive state for whether there would be a Revolution or not.) If somebody hadn’t brought Pennsylvania around, the Revolution would have been a lost cause, there would have been no Declaration of Independence, and the British would just pluck off the south, pluck off the north, and that would be that. Franklin was the one to help Jefferson write the Declaration of Independence, he’s the one that went off to France and secured absolutely indispensable loans, he’s the one that drafted the peace treaty, and the one who then came back to Philadelphia and played a really important role in framing the Constitution—and he writes about none of that. Why not?

In 1771, when he writes the first part, of course he doesn’t write about any of that—none of it had happened yet.

But the second part was written in 1784, and American independence was already an accomplished fact. The last two parts were written after the framing and adoption of the Constitution, so the new nation and its new charter were already accomplished facts. One would think that this is the man, of all people possible, who could immortalize himself by telling this story, because nobody’s going to tell it better. Franklin was the best writer on the continent, and he always had a great phrase for whatever was going on. At the time of the revolution, he’s the one who says that we must all hang together, or assuredly we will all hang separately. After the Constitutional Convention is finished, he’s the one who says, “You’ve got a republic, if you can keep it.” He’s the one who says that he’s been looking at the sun on the back on Washington’s chair throughout the whole summer, wondering if it’s a rising or setting sun, and now he has the pleasure to know it’s a rising sun. He’s always got the right words. Had he written about the revolution, had he written about the Constitution, that would have been our canonical account, forever more. If he had wanted to be linked with world-shaking events, for the sake of advancing his own celebrity, his own fame and fortune, he certainly couldn’t have done better than to write about the revolution, write about the struggle for independence, write about his life in the French court, write about the women, and write about whatever all of these things that people were panting to hear.

Instead, he never gets out of the 1750s in his Autobiography. What’s that all about? Why wouldn’t he write about those things? Why does he leave it to others? He’s a very old man, he knows that John Adams hates his guts, he knows that John Adams is consumed with jealousy of Franklin. He has no reason to believe that John Adams won’t write his own story of the revolution. He must know that if Adams writes the account unopposed by anything Franklin says, that Franklin’s role will be reduced into something that’s pretty despicable and contemptible. Why doesn’t he want to write his own version of this story? Is it because in writing about the revolution, he would have to deal with the fact that he’s now estranged from his son? Is it because he wasn’t sure about the ultimate success of the American project? None of these are answerable questions.

My answer is that Franklin’s is not about telling his side of the story. What I understand this autobiography to be is not Franklin’s self-promotion, but Franklin’s legacy—Franklin’s last will and testament, if you will, his final gift to the American people. And that gift is to say, look, democracy is yours. Egalitarianism is yours, invincibly. That’s the nature of American society. It was the nature of American society when we were colonists, it will be the nature of American society now that we’re an independent nation—it’s not at issue. The big story is not the revolution.

The big story is not the Constitution. For Franklin, the crucial questions facing Americans as a people is whether they will indulge in the worst possibilities of that free-wheeling democracy? Will they indulge in nothing but selfseeking and self-aggrandizement and looking out for number one? Or will they take to heart the possibilities embodied in his schemes for civic improvement and embodied in his vision for a United Party for Virtue? The question is not whether America will be a democratic society— Franklin believes that American society is so invincibly democratic that it doesn’t really matter what exact form of government you use. I think that what seems to him urgent is the lesson of his early life, the lesson of moving from self-advancement and self-promotion, to civic endeavor, to mutual benefit, to doing things for the common good.

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