Self-Portrait Of a Reluctant Revolutionary

Monday, October 17, 2005

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

In recent years Americans have become fascinated with their country's early history, though it's exceedingly difficult to say precisely why. This is almost entirely at odds with the national character, which tends to view all history as bunk, to look to the future rather than the past; yet David McCullough's "1776," a vivid account of the first year of the American Revolution, is on the bestseller lists, just as previously were Joseph Ellis's "Founding Brothers" and Walter Isaacson's "Benjamin Franklin." Other books on the Colonial and Revolutionary periods by the likes of Gordon S. Wood, Bernard Bailyn, Edmund S. Morgan and H.W. Brands have sold respectably, and the film "The Patriot" (2000), starring Mel Gibson, did well.

All of which is nice, though it's hard to tell whether it reflects genuine interest in the country's origins or merely passing fancy. In any case, people who have read one or more of the many current books about Benjamin Franklin really ought to direct their attention to the man himself, specifically to "The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin." It is, as Edmund Morgan writes in his foreword to the Yale University Press edition, "the most widely read autobiography ever written by an American," a book to which countless readers have turned "for what it tells us about Franklin's view of himself, for its embodiment of American values, for its homely admonitions, its deceptively simple style." Its "posthumous publication and popularity have made [Franklin] an American founding father in a more intimate fatherly way than the others who earned that title."

It is the first great American book. Other books of note -- particularly the tales of Washington Irving -- appeared well before 1867, when the complete text finally came out, but the "Autobiography" was written before 1790, when Franklin died.

My first reading of it was nearly four decades ago, during an academic sabbatical from my career in journalism. I sat in on a course in biography taught by a biographer of considerable eminence who included Franklin, as best I can recall, in some measure to mock him and his book, in particular the passages in which he describes his "bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection." In the atmosphere of the late 1960s it was easy to make sport of Franklin's earnest moralizing and his flattering self-portrait. Franklin set himself up as an exemplar for his fellow Americans, and in so doing made himself a fetching target for ridicule.

Still, even that teacher had to acknowledge -- and to his credit readily did -- that though Franklin doubtless twisted some of the facts of his life to his advantage, his "Autobiography" is an extraordinary document. It struck me so then, and it strikes me so even more strongly now. For one thing, it is the ultimate Horatio Alger story -- which is to say the American success story -- in this case about a Boston soapmaker's son, "the youngest Child but two" among 17, who "emerg'd from the Poverty and Obscurity in which I was born and bred, to a State of Affluence and some Degree of Reputation in the World," the stuff of Dickens as well as Alger. For another, it is plainly yet vividly written, its 18th-century prose still accessible to ordinary readers more than two centuries later. For yet another, it portrays Colonial and Revolutionary America -- the former most particularly -- with an immediacy unmatched in almost any other document.

The first and best part of the "Autobiography," which takes up about a third of its total length, is written, as the introduction to the Yale edition puts it, "in the form of a long letter to his son William (the royal governor of New Jersey), but actually addressed to all his 'Posterity.' " This section was begun during a visit to England in 1771, though whether it was completed then is not known, nor is it known for certain whether Franklin at that point intended it for publication. The three final sections, which "deal almost exclusively with Franklin's external, rather than his internal, life," surely were meant for a wider readership. As the Yale editors say, the private Franklin almost completely disappears from them, replaced by the revolutionary and the scientist and the statesman.

As all recent studies of Franklin have emphasized, he was a reluctant revolutionary, and in the "Autobiography" we can see him looking with admiration and longing to England. He was a loyal subject of the crown and wanted nothing so much as to keep the American colonies under what he regarded as its benevolent protection, but when the choice had to be made, he chose his native America, and became its most effective and articulate representative, first in England -- where an arrogant Parliament turned aside his eloquent pleas for leniency toward the colonies -- and then in France, which he cajoled into crucial support for the Revolution.

Franklin is often referred to as "the first American," or words to that effect, and the self-portrait he paints in the "Autobiography" is rich in qualities that have come to be associated with the American character; he is ambitious, pragmatic, common sensical, inventive, self-made, earthily humorous. Here, for example, is a passage in which he describes himself as a young man in Philadelphia, shaping himself and making his way:

"I now open'd a little Stationer's Shop. . . . In order to secure my Credit and Character as a Tradesman, I took care not only to be in Reality Industrious and Frugal, but to avoid all Appearances of the Contrary. I drest plainly; I was seen at no Places of idle Diversion; I never went out a-fishing or shooting; a Book, indeed, sometimes debauch'd me from my Work; but that was seldom, snug, and gave no Scandal; and to show that I was not above my Business, I sometimes brought home the Paper I purchased at the Stores, thro' the Streets on a Wheelbarrow. Thus being esteemed an industrious thriving young Man, and paying duly for what I bought, the Merchants who imported Stationary solicited my Custom, others propos'd supplying me with Books, and I went on swimmingly."

Indeed he did. He was the personification and embodiment of the American belief in reinvention, in a new life, in self-actualization. To call him the linear precursor of George Babbitt no doubt is unfair, but his desire to advance himself by pleasing others, by putting on the best possible face and by making every effort not merely to be "Industrious and Frugal," but to present the appearance of same, reminds us that not merely was he the first American, he was also the first Rotarian.

Yet hard though he labored to achieve flawlessness in every possible way, he retained his sense of humor and a self-awareness. Alas, he had to admit that, regarding the list of 13 "Virtues with their Precepts" that he attempted to perfect, he "never arrived at the Perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it." Still, "I was by the Endeavour a better and a happier Man than I otherwise should have been, if I had not attempted it." He was fully capable of laughing at himself, as when he recalls how, as a youth, he had undertaken a "Resolution of not eating animal Food," but then found himself becalmed at sea among people cooking cod:

"I had formerly been a great Lover of Fish, and when this came hot out of the Frying Pan, it smelt admirably well. I balanc'd some time between Principle and Inclination: till I recollected, that when the Fish were opened, I saw smaller Fish taken out of their Stomachs: Then thought I, if you eat one another, I don't see why we mayn't eat you. So I din'd upon Cod very heartily and continu'd to eat with other People, returning only now and than occasionally to a vegetable Diet. So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable Creature , since it enables one to find or make a Reason for every thing one has a mind to do."

Certainly his tongue seems to have been in his cheek as he wrote that, but he was a preternaturally wise man whose famous aphorisms were most notably published, of course, in Poor Richard's Almanack, which he began in 1732 and issued for about a quarter-century; much of his folk wisdom is also to be found in the "Autobiography." After recounting at some length his efforts to keep city streets free of dust, he acknowledges that "some may think these trifling Matters not worth minding or relating," then continues: ". . . tho' Dust blown into the eyes of a single Person, or into a single Shop on a windy Day, is but of small Importance, yet the great Number of the Instances in a populous City, and its frequent Repetitions give it Weight and Consequence. . . . Human Felicity is produc'd not so much by great Pieces of good Fortune that seldom happen, as by little Advantages that occur every day."

Small wonder that millions here and overseas have taken this book as a vade mecum for life itself. The world in which we live today is very different, but Franklin's wisdom is for the ages, our own as much as his. So read the "Autobiography," and -- among the many editions available -- read Yale's. Its text is the most reliable (the Franklin papers are at Yale) and its supplementary material is uniformly useful. Even this Chapel Hill man has to admit that this time Yale gets things exactly right.

"The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin" (Yale University Press paperback, $9.95).

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