The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
"Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing."
- Benjamin Franklin
In the summer of 1771, while he was living in a country home in England, Benjamin Franklin began an autobiography that he was destined to never finish. He prepared an outline of a final section that he did not complete, but the four parts that he did finish represent one of the seminal documents of the enlightenment.
A statesman, an author, an inventor, a scientist, a printer, and the list goes on and on when describing Benjamin Franklin. As an autobiographer he also demonstrated his genius as he reinvented the genre and the result is a classic. By focusing on his own self-invention the narrator of the autobiography broke with the previous models of this type of writing and provided a way for America to imagine itself.
Reading this work is both useful and inspirational. Undoubtedly that was intended for the author demonstrated a practicality in everything he did in his long life. The book also demonstrates a secular character that differs from some of the earlier classics such as Augustine's Confessions. For those who love reading his description of the founding of the first lending library is a perfect example of how he led his life, and he determined from this experience that the best way to promote a project was to remain in the background, avoiding self-promotion.
"I therefore put my self as much as I could out of sight, and stated it as a Scheme of a Number of Friends, who had requested me to go about and propose it to such as they thought Lovers of Reading. In this way my Affair went on more smoothly, and I ever after practis'd it on such Occasions; and from my frequent Successes, can heartily recommend it."
The autobiography is filled with many examples like this and may be read as not only the story of a person's life, but as the foundation of a country's character. I am reminded of a lecture I attended several years ago where Franklin's achievement was described as a "new Regime" by Professor Joseph Alulis. In his lucid and invigorating presentation at the Chicago Cultural Center (part of the First Friday series of lectures of the Basic Program of Liberal Education at the University of Chicago), he told how Franklin outlined a new order - a foundation for what became The United States of America.
Only 5 years after writing the first part of his autobiography Franklin would join Thomas Jefferson and others in writing the Declaration of Independence of the United States. The autobiography is an inspirational work and one that recommends a life of the pursuit of virtue and wisdom. It is a book worth reading and rereading.
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin. Yale, 2003 (1790)