In the weeks before spring break, we wrapped up the “Early American” portion of the course with Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. Over the next five weeks, we will make a rather quick dash through over 200 years of autobiography. Needless to say, our coverage will be selective–particularly as I have chosen to conclude the course with two full-length autobiographies published after 9/11. But I still we’ll still be able to grasp the changing nature of autobiography as multiplying cultural scripts and the increasingly intersectional nature of “American” identity becomes more and more complex and pronounced.
Our first day on Franklin was also our first day in a while without the Puritans, which many of you found oddly relieving. Franklin is pretty awesome, but I did certainly set him up coming hot off the Puritans. But I digress. To start, I asked the you all to begin thinking of ways to describe how Franklin’s text departs from the basic cultural script we saw repeated (and challenged) in the Puritan era. From that rough list, I devised the following breakdown.
Self-Examination <–> Self-Improvement
Sacred imitation <–> Secular imitation –> Self-Invention?
Self-Doubt <–> Irony –> Lack of emotion?
Affliction and Divine Cause <–> Afflictions and Pragmatic Lessons
Private/Exclusive Community <–> Malleable Public Sphere
Grace <–> Personal Virtue –> Community Ethics?
God’s Plot <–> Self-Authorship
Forgivable Sin <–> Revisable Errata
Divine Mystery <–> Experiential Knowledge
Total Depravity <–> Essential Improvability
Self-Extinguishing <–> Self-Assertion
Vulnerability <–> Immunity –> New forms of vulnerability?
Self-Perfectibility only in Death <–> Self-Perfectibility in Dullness (humor)
Plain Style <–> Rhetorical Flair
Sunday Sabbath <–> Self-Study
Humility <–> Vanity
Commandments/God’s Law <–> Practical Wisdom / Adage
Essential Uncertainty <–> Rhetorical Qualification
Paternal Control & Gender Bias <–> Maternal / Feminine Power?
Jeremiad (rant against present decay) <–> Inevitable Economic Progress
Self-Mortification <–> Pride/Confidence
I enjoyed using the above comparative template in class as it allowed all of you to fill in the details–this made for a lively and engaging discussion.
We all seemed to enjoy Franklin’s Autobiography–at least the first few parts where he recounts his long-shot rise to success as a printer and writer, a role that in many ways paved the way for his future successes. What began as a refreshing change from the Puritan mindset, however, slowly turned into a list of inevitable accomplishments largely drained of their dramatic force. The unstable, constantly self-conscious personality that we witnessed in the Puritans seemed to solidify into some immovable mass of American, if not universal, confidence. Such confidence, of course, emerges both from Franklin’s formidable intellect and accomplishment, but also from his position of utter privilege. His autobiographical self represents a real seat of power in early America. Personally, I longed for a sense of vulnerability–a characteristic I wish Franklin had cultivated as well as he had honed his often feigned humility. We also began so see a few cracks in Franklin’s benevolent universalism in his racist and unreflective banter concerning slaves, for example, and his rather insensitive take on the Native American situation. Alongside his more progressive views on female education, these moments help us see some complexity in Franklin’s character beyond the sturdy mask of success that he creates for himself.
Franklin wrote his autobiography with deep breaks—he begins in 1771—a year after the Boston Massacre. He takes it up again 14 years later and then again 4 years after than in 1788. Given the momentous political events of those years, it seems somehow stunning that we tend to read the Autobiography against the grain of its revisions of Puritanism rather than its relation to the emerging Republic. Perhaps this is because the Autobiography–at least in its earlier parts–seems oddly scrubbed clean and much more intent on providing universal and timeless lessons than on discussing the major events of the day. At the start, it seems a very individual; but by the end this sense of individuality is almost wiped clean. Franklin seems away of this movement, presenting those ingratiating “coaxers” at the start of the second part–which, as many of you noted, formalized the movement away from addressing his son alone to addressing a much broader public. In one way, we might consider Franklin’s self as increasingly relational, increasingly tied to others around him–but not relational in a purely positive sense. Rather, the self seems to be increasingly absorbed into the power structures at hand, increasingly claimed by public purposes rather than personal improvement.
Looking Ahead and Blog
(1) Critical Prompt: I don’t mean to sound redundant here, but the critical prompt remains the same: take a major or minor concept from Smith and Watson and use it to access a key part of the text we’re reading this week–The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Though the prompt remains the same, I want to emphasize once again how important it is for you to address a specific scene or paragraph in your blog post. The best posts avoid overly broad generalizations, turning a critical eye instead to a deeper engagement with particulars.
(2) Creative Prompt: The theme of literacy (and education more broadly) will be very important in Frederick Douglass’s Narrative, and we’ve already witnessed the importance these themes in Puritan autobiography (Bradstreet and Hutchinson especially) and also in Franklin (in his account of his own education and his reflection on female education in general). In your creative response, I’d like for you to reflect upon a formative moment involving literacy either in your own education or in something else that you’ve witnessed or read. I suppose that means if you do address a separate piece of literature or culture, this is potentially a critical prompt as well.
As always, to inspire “conversation” on the blog, a 300+ word response to one of your peer’s posts will count as a primary post.