Like Father Like Son

Ben Franklin’s Autobiography is highly unique in that it was written in four parts, each occurring at very different parts of his life.  His original intention, shown in Part 1 of the autobiography, is to present his own life as an example to his son.  He does this in hopes that his actions will give his son a certain amount of guidance in how to live his own life.  Ironically, father and son are split in opinion due to the Revolutionaries and loyalty to the British Crown.  As such, their contact is severed, thus opening Franklin’s Autobiography to a much wider audience.  These new readers include the authors of the letters in Part 2–both, coincidentally, having already read Part 1 of Franklin’s text.  All of a sudden, Franklin’s utilitarian justification for his autobiography becomes something much larger and more detailed.  Modern critics often argue that Franklin’s Autobiography is full of blunders and arrogant intellect.  However, this is not a fair assumption regarding the text.

Franklin’s new, expounded audience must be taken into consideration.  Smith and Watson write that reading audiences are “heterogeneous collectives for whom certain discourses of identity, certain stories, certain truths make sense at various moments” (97).  How then, are we to fairly conclude that Franklin’s autobiography is any one thing?  Franklin utilizes humility and the occasional good witted humor to portray many of the challenges he meets in the business world.  But as readers, our interpretations are constantly changing.  As separate audiences, they are exponentially different.  Smith and Watson continue by saying that “because readers ‘consume’ narratives along with other stories from elite as well as popular culture, their responses to life writing are influenced by other kinds of stories in general circulation–in families, communities, regions, nations, diasporas” (98).  If culture is constantly changing, there is no solid foundation in which Franklin’s autobiography is to be compared or challenged.  True, the spiritual narratives of times past have some impact on the autobiography–especially in that Franklin seems to modernize the element of self-deprivation by exemplifying his own self-gratification through hard work.  But it is important for us, as an audience, to take a more timeless approach to our interpretation of the Autobiography.  For over a hundred years, Franklin’s audiences have varied from one status to another–but yet the book still remains on shelves in local bookstores.

This can be illustrated simply.  Smith and Watson argue that the change in audience is monitored closely by the appearance of the publication itself.  More specifically, “we can trace shifts in reading tastes by observing the modifications of content and presentation of the versions over time” (99).  Through the use of illustration, contextual readings, and other works supporting the publication, the audience’s perspective is constantly shifted according to its own schema.  It is doubtful that Franklin intended to have as large a reading audience as he does.  Possibly he once considered the work to be solely interpreted by his son, William.  Nevertheless, due to the four parts occurring in completely separate situations, his Autobiography remains a classic example of how narrative is able to shift in accordance with the culture and beliefs of its audience.


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