History 233 Reading Guide

Discussion:  Provincial Mentality in the Eighteenth Century

  • Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography (1771-1789)
    Note:  If you are reading the Dover Thrift Edition of the Autobiography, read Franklin’s Outline last.  He did not intend this to be part of his account.  Most editions include it, usually placing it after Part IV, because he did not live to complete the story of his life.

Do not get bogged down in the details of Franklin’s life, and do not get sidetracked by introductory comments made by the editor of the edition you are reading (the editor might be offering a guide to a very different kind of reading of this text than the reading we are doing).

In addition, the title of Franklin’s text is a misnomer.  He did not give his account of his life a title; had he done so, he would not have called it an Autobiography, since the word was not coined until 1797, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.  Indeed, the genre of self-biography was just beginning to take shape at the end of the eighteenth century, so be cautious about considering his text as part of a well-developed genre.

Read Franklin’s autobiography as evidence of some of the changes that were taking place in the mid-eighteenth century, keeping in mind that this was one man’s understanding of those changes in colonial society.  Some questions to ponder as you read:

  • To whom was Franklin writing?  Was his intended audience the same as his stated audience? Did his vision of his audience change over time?
  • Why did he use his life as a model?  For what did he want to be remembered?
  • How did he structure his account?  How did he portray his life?  Why?
  • What message was he offering, to whom, and why?  Did his message change over time? How did he envision the future and how did he hope to shape it?

Letter from Benjamin Franklin to Mr Humphry Marshall, London, April 22, 1771