Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Semester of Degree Completion


Thesis Director

Parley Ann Boswell


Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) provided the paradigm for special qualities in each of his multiple careers which have since been regarded as characteristically American. Franklin's Autobiography is the epitome of Franklin's spirit. The first edition of the Autobiography appeared in French in 1971 and the first edition in English, published in 1793, was actually an anonymous retranslation of the French edition. Franklin's grandson, William Temple Franklin prepared Parts One, Two, and Three in 1818. In John Bigelow's 1868 edition, all four parts appear for the first time in English. In the twentieth century, there have been three major editions, each more complete, more accurate, and fully annotated than the previous one. They were by Max Farrand (1949), Leonard Labaree in 1964; J.A. Leo Lemay and Paul M. Zall's text published in 1981.

In Franklin's Autobiography, we see him as a typical, though great, example of eighteenth century Enlightenment, a Yankee Puritan who could agree with Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), a French Swiss-born philosopher and writer and Francois Marie Arouet Voltaire (1694- l 778 ), a French writer, and who could use the language of Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), an English journalist and novelist and Joseph Addison (1672-1719), an English essayist and poet, with a genial homely resonance. His style, perfectly adapted to the ends to which he devoted it, is lucid, precise, and piquant, revealing both his mental and moral temper. His mind was pragmatic, and though his greatest enthusiasm was reserved for science, he had a mellow temperance for all types of thought. With candor, gumption, and savvy, he relished the various turns in his life and took them easily, understanding and sharing the Gallic spirit while remaining pungently American.

Although Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography has long been regarded one of the chef d'oeuvre of American autobiography, the memoirs has always attracted negative criticism, especially from other American and British writers. Well into the twentieth century, Franklin's account continues to attract the attention of writers who find various faults and shortcomings in both Franklin and his writing.

Three of the most substantial responses written about Franklin and the Autobiography, those of Franklin's contemporary, John Adams, whose letters about Franklin are numerous; Mark Twain's essay "The Late Benjamin Franklin" (1870); and D.H. Lawrence's essay "Benjamin Franklin" in Classic Studies in American Literature (1924) represent the three most thoughtful and negative treatments of Franklin and his writing.

John Adams, who worked with Franklin many times between 1770 and 1790, felt very strong distrust for Franklin. As Robert Middlekauff explains in Benjamin Franklin and His Enemies, Adams "professed to feel only contempt for Franklin" (200). In Mark Twain's essay, Twain blames the philosophical lessons in Franklin's Autobiography for his own troubled childhood, since as a boy he felt that Franklin's lessons for youth ruined "boys who might otherwise be happy" (Middlekauff, xvi). D.H. Lawrence refers to Franklin as "Old Daddy Franklin" and the "First Dummy American," and describes Franklin as "a threat to the imagination and the spirit" (xviii).

The criticisms of Adams, Twain, and Lawrence, instead of undermining from the Autobiography or diminishing its reputation, have helped contemporary scholars, among them especially Franklin scholars such as Alfred Owen Aldridge, Joseph Alberic, Leo Lemay, Paul M. Zall, Carl Van Doren, Francis Jennings, and Robert Middlekauff, to study and understand Franklin's Autobiography.