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The Unfinished Life of Benjamin Franklin

Douglas Anderson

Publication Year: 2012

Benjamin Franklin wrote his posthumously published memoir—a model of the genre—in several pieces and in different temporal and physical places. Douglas Anderson’s study of this work reveals the famed inventor as a literary adept whose approach to autobiographical narrative was as innovative and radical as the inventions and political thought for which he is renowned. Franklin never completed his autobiography, choosing instead to immerse his reader in the formal and textual atmosphere of a deliberately “unfinished” life. Taking this decision on Franklin’s part as a starting point, Anderson treats the memoir as a subtle and rewarding reading lesson, independent of the famous life that it dramatizes but closely linked to the work of predecessors and successors like John Bunyan or Alexis de Tocqueville, whose books help illuminate Franklin’s complex imagination. Anderson shows that Franklin’s incomplete story exploits the disorderly and disruptive state of a lived life, as opposed to striving for the meticulous finish of standard memoirs, biographies, and histories. In presenting Franklin’s autobiography as an exemplary formal experiment in an era that its author once called the Age of Experiments, The Unfinished Life of Benjamin Franklin veers from the familiar practices of traditional biographers, viewing history through the lens of the literary imagination rather than the other way around. Anderson’s carefully considered work makes a persuasive case for revisiting this celebrated book with a keener appreciation for the subtlety and beauty of Franklin’s performance.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vi

List of Illustrations

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

This book proposes to illuminate the legacy of Benjamin Franklin by substituting his memoir for his life. The reverse is the customary scholarly practice: to sift the memoir for incidents and evidence that can illuminate our current understanding of the Atlantic world in Franklin’s lifetime. No face in American history is more famous than his. Perhaps only Washington and Lincoln are equally recognizable, and equally mythic, figures. Since the bicentennial of the ...

A Note to the Reader

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pp. xi-xiv

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Introduction: Accident and Design

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pp. 1-12

The following pages are about a book, not a man. Its author never gave his work a title, and though he wrote in English, part of his manuscript was first published in French translation in 1791, a year after his death. This initial appearance was quickly followed by German, Swedish, and English translations of the French fragment, one of which was serialized in eight installments of...

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CHAPTER 1 Great Works and Little Anecdotes

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pp. 13-46

Benjamin Franklin’s memoir begins, inauspiciously, as the recollections of an amateur genealogist, tracing his origins in the English Midlands, sharing the experience with his son, and adding his own contributions to the family lore. The initial result, he suggests in retrospect, is a compilation of “little family Anecdotes of no Importance to others,” a note of false modesty on the part ...

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CHAPTER 2 Imposing Forms

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pp. 47-81

Franklin’s memoir dramatizes a remarkable range of experiments in association, large and small, nearly all of which incorporate the shifting proportions of stability and instability reflected in the epitaph that he wrote for his parents. Social compacts of all sizes are repeatedly established, broken, modified, and remade in his pages, often for reasons that have little to do with...

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CHAPTER 3 The Scramble of Life

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pp. 82-118

Osborne, Watson, and Ralph compose Franklin’s second experiment in the formation of a mutual improvement society. The first, his friendship with Collins, had begun in much the same way as the bond among the four “Lovers of Reading” who debated the usefulness of poetry during their Sunday walks. But Collins had disappeared in the West Indies where Osborne’s promising legal career would come to a premature end; Watson died young; and James Ralph...

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CHAPTER 4 Litera Scripta Manet

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pp. 119-149

In the fall of 1773, Franklin contributed to the Public Advertiser the last of his efforts to influence English colonial policy through the London press, including two of his most celebrated satires: “Rules by Which a Great Empire May be Reduced to a Small One” and “An Edict by the King of Prussia.” After the news arrived in January 1774 of the destruction of the tea in Boston Harbor, followed by Franklin’s excruciating experience before the Privy Council the same...

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CHAPTER 5 Some Uses of Cunning

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pp. 150-181

From the moment that Franklin begins writing his memoir, he conceives of it as a record of excuses. The book as a whole, he insists, is an indulgence of an old man’s natural inclination to reminisce about his past. Franklin apologizes for doing so, in the memoir’s opening sentences, but vanity entices him to continue, consoled by the thought that readers (unlike listeners) need not pretend to be a polite audience. This convenient by-product of writing is also...

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CONCLUSION: Segmented Serpent

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pp. 182-192

The pace of Franklin’s narrative slows dramatically as he pieces together his account of the busy years between 1751, when he and Thomas Bond collaborate on building a hospital, and 1757, when he sails to England as the Pennsylvania Assembly’s agent in its case at court against Thomas Penn. The bulk of the 1788 fragment of the memoir focuses on events that fall between the Carlisle treaty meeting in the autumn of 1753 and the immediate aftermath of the Braddock ...


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pp. 193-208


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pp. 209-213

E-ISBN-13: 9781421406138
E-ISBN-10: 1421406136
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421405230
Print-ISBN-10: 1421405237

Page Count: 224
Illustrations: 8 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2012