- The Unfinished Life of Benjamin Franklin by Douglas Anderson, and: The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Franklin ed. by Carla Mulford, and: Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography ed. by Joyce Chaplin, and: The Making of a Patriot: Benjamin Franklin at the Cockpit by Sheila L. Skemp
Every autobiography tells at least two stories. The first belongs to the character whose story is being told, the second to the narrator who tells that story. Oftentimes this second story is kept discreetly out of sight, but the text we know as Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography steadfastly refuses to accede to the convenient fiction that the history it recounts exists independent of the circumstances of its telling. Like a boom mic dipping into the frame, Franklin the writer repeatedly obtrudes, reminding his readers that it is not unfolding reality we are witnessing but a carefully composed representation of it. The superimposition of these two chronologies begins in the thin veneer of epistolarity that accompanies the Autobiography’s opening salutation “Dear son,” and the reminder that the story of Franklin’s ancestry and youth were written while on vacation in England in 1771 (Chaplin 9 [End Page 473] [all references to the text of the Autobiography are to this edition]). Franklin only got as far as the establishment of the Library Company of Philadelphia in 1731, but he resumed writing, he tells us, in 1784 (74). Franklin repeats the description of the Library Company before outlining his youthful “bold and arduous Project of arriving at Moral Perfection” (78). He had not written very many pages before again breaking off, resuming “at home, August 1788” (89). These conspicuously staged scenes of writing constitute the text’s three parts, to which a fourth is sometimes added, though Franklin does not mark it. Part 4 comprises the final seven pages of his manuscript, which offer a very abbreviated overview of Franklin’s diplomatic efforts following his arrival in England on July 27, 1757.
Douglas Anderson’s The Unfinished Life of Benjamin Franklin situates these discontinuities at the heart of the Autobiography’s figurative economy. He argues that it is riven not by an accident of Franklin’s biography—his death in 1790—but because its fissures are meaningful, even central, elements of the text’s celebration of language’s manifold possibilities: “The memoir’s formal solution to these expressive demands is an episodic continuum, inscribed across space and time” (121). The frequently invoked emblem for this form is Franklin’s famous political cartoon, an illustration of a segmented snake subscribed with the words “Join or Die.” Like the emblem, the Autobiography’s careful transections are key to its meaning, and while they make summarizing its structure something of a challenge, the result is in no way disruptive to read. On the contrary, it is a pleasure. “Franklin accomplishes this feat of integration not by drawing the parts of the narrative more closely together but by taking them apart,” Anderson points out (85).
Franklin’s project in The Autobiography, Anderson argues, is governed more by juxtaposition than incorporation: “a writer, in the pages of the memoirs, is primarily a collector and arranger” (137). This is not an entirely new observation, of course, but it is an important one and bears repeating. Christopher Looby argues that the Autobiography’s “most salient formal features . . . are its divisions or interruptions” followed closely by its “incompletion” (127). But whereas Looby saw the convulsive trauma of Revolution leading to “formal incoherence” and “the failure of Franklin’s narrative program,” Anderson finds that same incoherence productive (127). The Unfinished Life attributes the text’s enduring popularity, at least in part, to its formal raggedness. [End Page 474]
Each of The Unfinished Life’s chapters attends to one of the major sections...