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.
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.