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 . . .