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Franklin's Purloined Letters
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Franklin's Purloined Letters
Christopher Looby
University of Chicago
Christopher Looby

Christopher Looby has published essays on Franklin in Eighteenth-Century Studies and American Quarterly. He is writing a book on the linguisticality of early American nationality, as well as essays on Richard Wright, nineteenth-century sensation fiction, and American masculinity.


1. Bernard Bailyn's biography, The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson, has a chapter on the scandal of the letters that is the best general treatment of the episode: entitled "The Scape-Goat," it foregrounds the metaphor that Franklin deploys to such effect. Instances of Franklin's use of the metaphor may be found in his Papers at 20: 381 and 21: 430, 431.

2. The work of Michel Serres, for instance The Parasite, provides an interesting conflation of the scapegoating device and the theory of communication disturbance via the figure of the parasite (parasite in French means "static"), who acts as a disruptive, noisy third party to an otherwise symmetrical exchange (economic or communicative). The exclusion of the interference, in the interest of restoring transparency, is analogous to the sacrifice of the scapegoat in the interest of restoring political/economic stasis. It isn't possible to explore this matter here, but the conflation of these two functions in the figure of the parasite is fairly prevalent in Franklin's writing.

3. The "Edict" is reprinted in the Library of America volume from the original Public Advertiser printing (Writings 698-703), and preserves the typographical mannerisms that Franklin favored.

4. Franklin calls here upon the so-called Saxon (or Gothic) myth. On the use made by American revolutionary leaders of this historical myth see Colbourn 28, 30-31, 48, 55-56, 183-84, 191, 194-98.

5. My allusion is to the very knowing depiction of Franklin in Melville's Israel Potter.

Works Cited

Bailyn, Bernard. The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1974.
Colbourn, H. Trevor. The Lamp of Experience: Whig History and the Intellectual Origins of the American Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1965.
Derrida, Jacques. The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Franklin, Benjamin. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin. Ed. Leonard W. Labaree, William B. Willcox, et al. 25 vols. to date. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959- .
———. Writings. Ed. J. A. Leo Lemay. New York: Library of America, 1987.
Serres, Michel. The Parasite. Trans. Lawrence R. Schehr. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.

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