It’s All About the Benjamin Baby

Reading The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and comparing it to the spiritual autobiographies of the Puritans has brought to light what Smith and Watson refer to as audience. That is not to say that the juxtaposition of the two styles raises questions as to who the texts are clearly addressed to. Rather, it is interesting to compare the belief systems of the competing texts’ contemporary readers as they relate to the question of self examination vs. self improvement.

At the very beginning of Franklin’s narrative, he admits that his writing may “a good deal gratify [his] own vanity.” Written in 1771, Franklin’s first chapter was produced while Puritan belief was still rampant in America. Franklin believes that vanity “is often productive of good to the possessor.” This represents a fundamental shift from Puritan religious beliefs to a more Jeffersonian mode of thought.

Puritan texts engage in self-examination often with the goal of rooting out their worldly vanity. Oftentimes, Puritan autobiographies include the author chastising themselves for grieving over the loss of a loved one, lamenting that their sadness is misplaced on worldly affections. Obviously, Franklin’s autobiography does not attempt self-examination in the hopes of rooting out his personal vanity. Instead, the autobiography serves as a counter to Puritan spirituality even going so far as to suggest that “it would not be altogether absurd if a man were to thank God for his vanity.”

Sentiments such as this would never be within Puritan writings. Yet Franklin’s autobiography is being produced alongside such spiritual texts. Thus, the existence of the two points to a split within American readership. On one hand, Puritan religious writings were still popular, illustrated as Franklin references revival preaching. On the other, Franklin was a popular colonial figure who was surrounded by like minded founding fathers. Ultimately, the existence of the two different types of texts showcases a literary public divided between religious introspection and pragmatic personal development.

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