Monday, October 15, 2007

Imitating Jesus and Socrates: Franklin as Gramsci’s Organic Intellectual

by Ami Blue, Eastern Kentucky University

In “The Formation of the Intellectuals,” Marxist Antonio Gramsci describes the two scenarios from which the world’s intellectuals emerge. Although Gramsci believes that all men can be intellectuals, few men play the role of professional intellectual in economic, social, or political arenas. Benjamin Franklin was crafted from birth by his society—namely his father—to become an American organic intellectual—born and raised by a specific society to affect an economical, social, or political change (Gramsci 1138). Gramsci lists the necessary traits and accomplishments of an organic intellectual in any one of these three discourses, and Franklin emerges not as one—a mere mortal organic intellectual—but as all three types in the more formative early years of his record.

In the economic realm, Gramsci’s organic intellectual takes the form of the capitalist entrepreneur (1138). Franklin exposes his capitalistic endeavors by slickly maneuvering himself into the Pennsylvania Assembly printer’s job (66) and even divulging his interests in the “profitability” of moving up in the political game (98). Franklin’s entrepreneurial efforts began with his part ownership of the newspaper with Meredith, soon followed by his opening his own stationer’s shop (67, 69).

Socially, Gramsci’s ideal organic intellectual is an industrial technician. Franklin exhibits early signs of industry in redesigning the street lamps (118-119), but he also repeatedly comments on his own industry (37, 39, 65, and 69; #6 on the big 13, p. 83) and then marries a woman “as much dispos’d to industry and frugality as myself” (80). Moreover, Franklin’s multitudinous inventions place him among America’s most memorable and famous industrial technicians.

Politically, Franklin secured work printing paper currency (68) and became increasingly involved in state and local political matters (72, 78). In a more service-oriented capacity, he instigated creating America’s first library (72) and restructured and regulated the “city watch,” or fire workers’ union (99-100). These were among the first of his myriad political actions, too plentiful to name here.

Gramsci outlines copious desirable intellectual traits, including capacity for direction, intellect, and assuming the role of confidant to investors and customers. In his letter, Vaughn points to Franklin’s affect on “the future of great men,” as though Franklin hadn’t spent much of his life directing the economical, social, and political decisions of such a crowd (74). As far as intellectual capacity, the book speaks for itself, but Franklin also actively sought intellectual stimulation, thus forming Junto (63). He also enjoyed lifelong patronage from customers (66) and support of investors (67).

Vaughn writes to Franklin, “Your account of yourself . . . will show that you are ashamed of no origin” (75). Gramsci would consider this the final mark of an organic intellectual: one who comes from the place he later restructures politically, economically, or socially—as if shepherded from birth by a diligent father unwilling to see his brilliant son lost at sea. Gramsci adds that only the “elite” among entrepreneurs can organize “society in general” because he will want to favor his own class. Franklin’s love for industry, frugality, and his egalitarian worldview wouldn’t permit him to reserve benefits for only his own; Vaughn says as much when he accredits Franklin with proving “how little necessary all origin is to happiness, virtue, or greatness” (75).

Gramsci provides stricter standards for the elitist organic intellectuals, and Franklin exceeds them all. Here are some questions that arise from all of this in terms of discussion: Considering the upcoming politically charged election and Franklin’s success as an organic intellectual, which of Franklin’s character traits should social activists adopt when hoping to inspire social, political, or economic change? Which of those persons running for President measure closest to Franklin, and into what organic intellectual role(s) does she/he fit? For whom would Franklin vote? What textual evidence affirms your conclusion?

Works Cited
Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. New York: MacMillian Pub. Co., Inc: 1962.

Gramsci, Antonio. “The Formation of the Intellectuals.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton (2001): 1138-1143.

Social Immobility: Franklin’s Autobiography and Class-Based Humor

by Teresa Coronado, University of Oregon

Among other readings, Franklin’s Autobiography has been read as a tract promoting the American Dream. I would argue that Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography is about the suppression of the individual self. Specifically, Franklin thwarts class mobility for those who do not possess Franklin’s performative skills. While the text offers how-to advice on transcending class, this advice also imposes a workman-like rigidity that cannot successfully imitate the flexibility of Franklin’s own performance of class transcendence. In the Autobiography, Franklin is a fluid caricature of a self; however, he creates an automated system of representation for others—prompting him to laugh at those who unbendingly follow his lead.

The idea of rigidity, fluidity, elasticity and inelasticity is developed from Henri Bergson’s theory of laughter which insists that: “The laughable element [. . .] consists of a certain mechanical inelasticity, just where one would expect to find the wide-awake adaptability and the living pliableness of a human being” (Bergson 10). In his Autobiography, Franklin is pliable; in fact, he is so adaptable that careers have been made in arguing who the “real” Franklin was, especially in his Autobiography. However, his Autobiography does not offer advice on pliability. Instead, it offers advice on an automatism that renders its follower ridiculous.

Franklin’s mutability materializes through his comic masks and performances of class. As Robert F. Sayre remarks, “Franklin readily slipped into poses in the Autobiography because he had lived in a fluid world. His day-to-day identities approached poses” (Sayre 23). These poses, I argue, are the poses of class—performances, as it were, he learns from his well-bred parentage. Franklin, who can trace his lineage to established, respected, although not wealthy, Puritan stock, is mythically understood to have come from great poverty and a lower-class background. However, in his upbringing, Franklin was brought up in what we would now classify as middle-class values. Franklin’s father, for example, “always took care to start some ingenious or useful topic for discourse which might tend to improve the minds of his children. By this means he turned our attention to what was good, just, and prudent in the conduct of life” (24). In this manner, Franklin says, “I was brought up in such a perfect inattention to those matters as to be quite indifferent what kind of food was set before me” (24). Rather than learning to care about the types of foods placed before him on the table, Franklin learns the art of conversation—an art that would help him throughout his life. In the homespun revolutionary era, only the aristocrats could really stand out with visible physical class markers, such as clothes and home goods—everyone else relied on the acting out of valued qualities such as conversation and mannerisms. Such acting out—or imitation—of middling sort qualities, such as table conversation, both undermines and supports class hierarchy. Franklin, who can do both, shows the weakness of structure while aspiring to strengthen it with his own admittance.

Franklin is, as aforementioned, elastic in his adaptability to class performance—the humor is in the inelasticity implied in the performance of others who attempt to follow his lead. Colleen Terrell argues that “Franklin’s detailed account of his labors in the art of virtue suggests that the construction of the self presents as a great technical challenge, demands as great a skill, as the manufacture of a time-piece. And indeed, the two crafts had identical goals: the regulation of behavior” (Terrell 116). Further, Terrell finds, “where the Autobiography encodes an iterable process, circulating a representative pattern for the further reproduction of citizens in the Franklinian mold, the text itself becomes a machine for the manufacture of virtue” (Terrell 132). Thus, Franklin’s elasticity becomes the mechanization for the inelasticity of others—by Bergson’s reckoning, a laughable element in any human being.

One of the best examples of performance is in Franklin’s own description of his learning process. His first writings were transcripts of the Spectator—a series of mechanical reproductions that helped Franklin learn the style of more learned men. After copying and recopying different articles from the Spectator, Franklin found that “by comparing my work afterwards with the original, I discovered many faults and corrected them” (29). This act of copying and correcting is as, Jennifer T. Kennedy argues, “an act of practiced forgetfulness” (221). Kennedy writes that Franklin trained “his memory to remember the words of the Spectator as if they were his own, to make himself, in short, a spectator of his own mind” (Kennedy 221). Franklin writes of his experiment that he sometimes “had the pleasure of fancying that in certain particulars of small import I had been lucky enough to improve the method or the language, and this encouraged me to think that I might possibly in time come to be a tolerable English writer, of which I was extremely ambitious” (29). This exercise is, as Kennedy says, “intentional mortification” of one’s own memory (221). Franklin writes that he has, in effect, suppressed his memory—but he counters this by, in fact, remembering the process by which this was done.

Franklin may have improved his writing through imitation, but he recognizes this as imitation. In teaching others to perform this imitation, Franklin suggests that others subsume their memory, without giving them the tools to remember this erasure—a function of becoming inelastic. Franklin argues that “those who aim at perfect writing by imitating the engraved copies, tho’ they never reach the wished-for excellence of those copies, their hand is mended by the endeavor and is tolerable while it continues fair and legible” (101), but any person who tries this is already educated and of Franklin’s class. Writing requires an education, and the writing that Franklin is arguing for—through reading and copying—requires both the physical tools for the attempt as well as the leisure time to pursue such an endeavor. In encouraging this type of imitation and forgetfulness, Franklin encourages the absorption of self into a rigid model based upon a non-existent mold. Class performance is imitation, and Franklin encourages this performance to be as rigid and, therefore, laughable, as possible. The Autobiography does not allow for class mobility—Franklin closes that door behind him.

Works Cited
Bergson, Henri. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. Trans. Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell. London: Macmillan, 1911.

Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography and Other Writings. Ed. L. Jesse Lemisch. Afterword by Carla Mulford. New York: Signet-Putnam, 2001.
Goloboy, Jennifer L. “The Early American Middle Class.” Journal of the Early Republic 25 (2005): 537-45.

Kennedy, Jennifer T. “Death Effects: Revisiting the Conceit of Franklin’s Memoir.” Early American Literature 36.2 (2001): 201-34.

Sayre, Robert F. The Examined Self: Benjamin Franklin, Henry Adams, Henry James. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP 1964.

Terrell, Colleen E. “Republican Machines”: Franklin, Rush, and the Manufacture of Civic Virtue in the Early Republic. Early American Studies 1.2 (Fall 2003): 100-32.

A Franklin Autobiography

by Caroline Wigginton, The University of Texas at Austin

In the spirit of Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, this essay is a narrative account of my literary encounters with this Franklin text. As a literary scholar and teacher, this narrative speaks to many questions I have about my pedagogical self-fashionings. I would like my narrative and the questions it asks to open up a conversation about the place of Franklin in the literature classroom and ultimately about the decisions we make as individuals with personal narratives about the texts we teach.

I first read Franklin’s Autobiography in my junior year of high school. Though the class and the teacher inspired my love of literary studies, the discussion of Franklin was mostly forgettable. I remember the teacher emphasizing individualism and Franklin’s “self-made man” mystique. The teacher, like many others do, presented Franklin as the quintessential American, embodying the American dream. The teacher used this theme throughout the course to discuss every text and, while the details about Franklin have been lost, his founding relationship to the theme of American individualism is still one of the key ways I think about his autobiography.

I next read Franklin over a decade later during an independent study course in graduate school, just a couple years ago. As a graduate student working Early American Literature, I couldn’t avoid Franklin any longer, but it turns out I couldn’t avoid thinking about individualism either. I read Franklin alongside Sacvan Bercovitch’s Rites of Assent (Routledge, 1992). At that time, I felt Franklin’s text to embody Bercovitch’s belief in consensus/dissensus and its place within U.S. culture. Bercovitch argues for dissensus as an essential component of American consensus: “[Radicalism] was a strategy of pluralism everywhere to compartmentalize dissent so as to absorb it, incrementally, unus inter pares, into a dominant liberal discourse” (21). In reading Franklin through the lens of Bercovitch, I argued for Franklin’s Autobiography as personalized dissensus, a component of individual maturation: man versus himself. By doing so, it implies that American dissensus occurs most productively at the individual level. At the individual level, dissensus loses its radicalism and transformatory power within larger power structures.

My most recent encounter with Franklin occurred this past summer when I designed my first syllabus for a literature course. After several years of being a teaching assistant and then teaching composition, I had finally been asked to teach my Department’s introductory course for English majors, typically full of freshmen and sophomores who had not read or written about literature since high school. In designing this course, I knew I wanted to begin with a colonial American text and build upon my expertise in that field. After scrolling through the Heath and Norton Anthologies’ Tables of Content and perusing my own bookshelves, I quickly identified Franklin’s Autobiography as a potential text. My two previous readings of Franklin spoke well for its inclusion since they indicated that the text was approachable both in terms of understanding its literal meaning and in terms of its theme of American individualism, one which might open up the radical and not so radical potentials of literature.

Yet I found myself questioning whether I wanted to pass on my first lesson in American literature. Would selecting this text be an implicit agreement with my high school English teacher’s year long theme of equating American literature with American individualism? After all, within U.S. national mythology, Franklin continues to hold a mystique as simultaneous genius and self-made man. His important role within Revolutionary intellectual debates and the crafting of the Constitution extends his individualism to America’s roots, a somewhat contradictory conflation of the American tradition with the ability to escape tradition. I didn’t believe I could teach Franklin without this theme becoming a frequent area of discussion.

As much as I enjoy Franklin’s Autobiography, this theme implies that works speaking less explicitly to individualism, especially those by writers of color who frequently embrace community, are not really American literature. However, I wasn’t ready to forget Franklin and choose another author and text. Perhaps I could teach Franklin alongside something less canonical? The Norton Anthology of American Literature places Franklin immediately before a section of texts by Samson Occom, an eighteenth-century Mohegan minister and an author about whom I have written. I considered teaching Franklin alongside Occom’s eloquent, angry, and moving personal narrative. A recent compilation of all Occom’s works (The Collected Writings of Samson Occom, Mohegan: Literature and Leadership in Eighteenth-Century Native America, ed. Joanna Brooks, Oxford UP, 2006) includes a more complete version of this narrative and publishes for the first time a paragraph in which Occom explains his motivations in writing his narrative. This paragraph could help students more easily see that Franklin’s desire to “make himself” throughout his life and through his Autobiography cannot be unquestionably extended to other autobiographies of the period. However, would that result in a more complicated reading of Franklin, individualism, and American nationalism or would it result in eliding Occom’s deep commitment to his Mohegan and pan-Indian communities? Would it simply cause students to incorporate Occom’s dissensus into a multiculturalist American nationalism?

I don’t want to imply that Franklin’s Autobiography is not complex, only about individualism, and not an important text for students of American literature to read. I do want to question how we as teachers escape repeating our earliest lessons in literature when we no longer agree with them, but they are so deeply embedded in how we approach literature. For me, my earliest lessons appear to be an unavoidable lens through which to read a text for the first time. They are interpretations that I worry my students will be unable to avoid when they are so obvious within dominant U.S. cultural ideology (whether or not they are the “correct” interpretations). In response to texts which are too rooted in what we don’t want to teach about literature, whether it is Franklin for me or an entirely different text for someone else, do we do what I did and simply reject them? Do we only teach them outside introductory literature courses where students (and perhaps we teachers) are less unsophisticated in our approaches? Do we embrace them and simply tell our students other ways of reading? Do we see them as opportunities, choosing to spend more class days on them and leading our students through different readings, moving further and further away from our first thoughts? I ended up teaching Phillis Wheatley’s Complete Writings, but that’s a whole other narrative . . .