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  • Representative NobodiesThe Politics of Benjamin Franklin’s Satiric Personae, 1722–1757
  • Todd N. Thompson (bio)

In his 1736 preface to Poor Richard’s Almanac, Benjamin Franklin jocularly responds to rumors about Poor Richard Saunders’s identity, and in doing so plays upon notions of public appearance unique to print media. Remarking on accusations that Saunders does not exist, Franklin, through Saunders, complains, “This is not civil Treatment, to endeavour to deprive me of my very Being, and reduce me to a Non-entity in the Opinion of the publick.” Using humorously specious logic, Saunders begs the question, “. . . if there were no such Man as I am, how is it possible I should appear publickly to hundreds of People, as I have done for several Years past, in print?” (Papers 2: 136).1 This is but one of several jokes that Franklin makes in his almanacs to play upon the relationship between the author-character of Poor Richard and the printer-person of Benjamin Franklin. In this example, the ironically circular reasoning of Poor Richard’s printed justification for his existence—that he appears in print—calls attention to the fact that emergent print media could reach thousands of readers in the colonies, ostensibly without revealing the identity of the author or speaker. Saunders’s claim to authorship is comical in part because it has become impossible to tell who the “I” who makes the claim actually is. This is a playful nod to the notion of impersonality implicit in print media, even as Franklin revolutionized the almanac genre by creating a sustained, realistic literary character.

Michael Warner has characterized Franklin’s jokes on authorship as an exercise in self-negation, removing the notion (and standard social criteria) of authorship as he instantiates a public sphere. For Warner, Saunders’s insistence on authorship and Franklin’s denial of it show that, in public sphere print discourse, authorship no longer matters. Franklin’s consistent use of personae in his writing thus signals a disavowal of the authorial [End Page 449] self in favor of the “negating universality” of public-sphere discourse (87). Similarly, Christopher Looby sees Franklin’s creation of Silence Dogood, his first persona, as “self-alienation in language” through a “linguistically created self” that, for Looby, is just the first of many examples of Franklin’s separation of “the public persona from the subjective self” (115). But in my account of Franklin’s use of personae, I hope to distinguish his pseudonymic characters from his public persona. Despite the fact that many readers knew Poor Richard’s and Obadiah Plainman’s creator (if they did not know Dogood’s), Franklin’s studied development of these characters does not signify a diffusion of self for the public sphere.2 Rather, in creating sustained satiric personae such as Dogood, Saunders, and Plainman, Franklin, instead of simply distancing himself from his productions, was birthing new beings-in-print, lending the authority of print to fictional characters whose personality traits were crafted to be representative of colonists otherwise excluded from public-sphere discourse.

Franklin’s personae are thus important not just for what they say but also for who they are. In contrast to Warner’s assertion that print allows for public discourse because it “represents a public vision from a nonparticular perspective” (82), I find that in satiric discourse personality does matter: not the author’s personality but the personalities that the author crafts for his personae. The particular perspectives and traits that Franklin’s authorship gave to Dogood, Saunders, and Plainman were important, if only because in their modesty, fallibility, and alienation from power, they came to represent a politically significant “nonauthority” paradoxically capable of speaking powerfully to power. Satiric personae were important as (obviously fictional but therefore more elastically emblematic) representatives who spoke for and to their newspaper and almanac readership and against the clerical elite’s definitions and policing of social and civic norms.3 Through oppositional speech and political education, these personae modeled both self-reliance and dissent.

It is important to differentiate between pseudonyms adopted for one-time use and personae whose characters develop over several installments.4 One scholar characterizes most single-use pseudonyms of the...


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pp. 449-480
Launched on MUSE
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