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The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin | Symbols

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Printing

Franklin's apprenticeship in printing and his early career in the profession had a profound impact on his mind-set. Not only did printing provide him with an increasingly profitable living, but it also became a metaphor for the way Franklin chose to live his life. Printing dispensed information and opinion, as in a newspaper. It also formed a record of events, as in an almanac (or, indeed, an autobiography). Finally, it served as a set of memories, which could be revisited, revised, or perhaps even corrected. All these facets of printing are either explicit or implicit in the Autobiography. It is not too much to say that Franklin viewed his life as a book, which might be read, imitated, or corrected by future generations.

The Junto

The Junto (meaning joining or club in Spanish) was the Philadelphia club founded by Franklin and some of his "ingenious acquaintance[s]" in 1727. Franklin was only 21 at the time. Franklin explicitly asserts that the club was established "for mutual improvement." The details he provides are instructive. The club's meetings were scheduled for Friday nights, when the members would take turns in presenting "queries on any point of morals, politics, or natural philosophy." Once every three months, each member would have to present an original essay, which the members would then discuss. Franklin declares that the Junto members gradually acquired "better habits of conversation" because of these rules. The Junto comes to symbolize collective intellect and improvement in the Autobiography. It is a visible sign of Franklin's belief in cooperative effort and progress.

Books

Books played a pre-eminent role in Franklin's long life, from early childhood until his death. For young Ben books were almost like charms or talismans, worth the expense of all his extra pocket money. Books were repositories of information. They were also sources of inspiration. Perhaps most importantly, they offered models of style in communication. In this regard Franklin's singling out of Joseph Addison's Spectator essays, published when he was a young child, is especially significant. Franklin says he went to elaborate lengths to imitate Addison's prose style. For three centuries, literary critics have characterized Addison's style as concise, clear, and elegantly balanced. Franklin's identification of these qualities as especially desirable in his own prose is noteworthy. What Addison offered him was an effective means to either inform or persuade—purposes that would serve Franklin well in his newspapering and pamphleteering career. Thus, books were symbols for young Ben Franklin of the communication methods he would use to influence readers in later life.

Public Image

Many historians have remarked on Franklin's frequent assumption of masks, personas, or disparate images—in the Autobiography, in his essays, and in his letters. Who was Franklin, exactly? One of his leading biographers, Gordon S. Wood, has remarked that he is not an easy man to get to know. This intentionally kaleidoscopic view of Franklin is not, in fact, unique to him among the founders. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were also acutely conscious of being on stage or acting a role, and each assiduously managed his public image.

For Franklin specifically, his public image can be said to symbolize reputation or honor, that most precious quality of an 18th-century gentleman—particularly for a first-generation gentleman like Franklin, who had risen from humble origins. At dozens of points in the Autobiography, Franklin lets it be known that other people's opinions need to be carefully managed, steered, or directed. Otherwise, envy or malicious misinterpretation may easily skew the desired picture.

Toward the end of Part 1 of the Autobiography, Franklin makes the following comment on his image, revealing how important appearances were to him: "In order to secure my credit and character as a tradesman, I took care not only to be in reality industrious and frugal, but to avoid all appearances of the contrary."

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