The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is one of the most famous, beloved, and lauded works of American letters; it is also the first autobiography to achieve widespread popularity and is a classic of the genre. It sheds light on the life of one of America’s Founding Fathers, a man singular in his confluence of intellect, wit, ingenuity, perspicacity, and self-awareness. The work is not only an autobiography but also a historical document of a tumultuous time in our history, a self-help manual that encapsulates the idea of the self-made man and American individualism, and (at least in Part One) a stirring bildungsroman that is almost novelistic in its lucid, dynamic narration. As famed Franklin scholar J.A. Leo Lemay states, “Franklin gave us the definitive formation of the American Dream.”
The work, addressed to Franklin’s son William, was written over many decades. Scholar Susan Garfinkel sums up the process thusly: “Part One was penned while Franklin was in England in July-August of 1771. This is also when Franklin most likely drew up his outline for the entire work. By the summer of 1782, both documents had been seen by a friend, Abel James, who wrote to Franklin urging him to resume the project. Franklin drafted Part Two in 1784 while living in France. Part Three, dating from 1788-89, was composed when a Franklin now in his eighties had, after a long and distinguished international career, returned home to settle his affairs. This is also when he added most of his revisions. The shortest section, Part Four, was written when Franklin was in poor health in the last few months of his life.” The work is unfinished, as Franklin died in 1790, but an outline exists that shows what Franklin intended to include.
The Autobiography was occasionally known as a Life or Memoirs before the 1840s, and there were many competing versions of the text in circulation in its early years. After Franklin died a few unauthorized extracts were published in two Philadelphia magazines. He had stated a few times that he did not want to publish it, but this was belied by the fact that he sent out copies of the manuscript to several friends over the years. The book-length version was published in French in 1791 but it was based on an early version of the manuscript, which only contained Part One. In 1793, two years after editions in German and Swedish, a book-length edition in English was published in London; it was entitled The Private Life of the Late Benjamin Franklin. There were issues, however, as this was a retranslation from the French. Franklin’s grandson, William Temple Franklin, published an edition in English in 1818 that would become definitive for a while, but it did not include Part Four and was modified with Temple’s own stylistic revisions. More editions circulated throughout the late 1790s. It was not until 1868, when John Bigelow combined all four parts based on Franklin’s final manuscript into the Autobiography, that a standard edition existed.
While the work is almost universally lauded, there have been some notable criticisms. D.H. Lawrence found the work limiting in its quirky optimism, and Max Weber thought it was too capitalistic. Mark Twain had a few gently mocking words about the “affliction” pervading young boys who picked up the work. Overall, though, it is a central work in the American canon and is frequently studied in schools and universities.