In This Article Benjamin Franklin

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Primary Texts
  • Franklin as a Printer and Visual Artist
  • Science and Medicine
  • Politics
  • Religion and Moral Philosophy
  • Women
  • Race and Ethnicity
  • Image and Cultural Influence
  • Franklin and Other Writers

American Literature Benjamin Franklin
by
David Curtis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 October 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0141

Introduction

Benjamin Franklin (b. 1706–d. 1790) was born and raised in colonial Boston, Massachusetts, in the waning years of Puritan hegemony. He was apprenticed to his brother James, a printer. The precocious apprentice’s first publication was a broadside ballad on the capture of Blackbeard, but his first lasting literary creation, the character of a Puritan widow turned author named Silence Dogood, appeared in a series of letters surreptitiously submitted to his brother’s newspaper, The New England Courant, in 1722. After several fallings out with his brother, Franklin slipped away to Philadelphia in 1723. In late 1724, he took his first transatlantic trip (out of eight during his lifetime), and he spent most of the next two years learning the printing trade in London. In 1728, Franklin began operating a successful printing business and publishing The Pennsylvania Gazette. From 1733 to 1758 he wrote and published Poor Richard’s Almanack, significant for its hundreds of popular maxims and the creation of Richard Saunders, its fictional author. For the preface to the 1758 edition, Franklin compiled many of the maxims concerned with making and saving money in a humorous and lightly satirical piece that was later titled “The Way to Wealth,” and it became one of the two most widely read of his literary productions. After retiring from day-to-day operations of his printing business in 1748, Franklin spent much of the next three years performing and publishing his Experiments and Observations on electricity in 1751. His contributions earned him recognition by the Royal Society in England and garnered for him an international reputation as a natural philosopher. Active as well in Pennsylvania politics, he was selected in 1757 to represent the colony in England during its dispute with proprietor Thomas Penn. Aside from a brief return to Philadelphia from 1762 to 1764, he remained in England until the eve of the Revolution, eventually representing several colonies and serving as de facto ambassador from British North America. For two weeks in July and August 1771 he wrote the first of four installments of his memoirs, which would be composed over the next nineteen years and be published posthumously as his Autobiography. Franklin returned to Pennsylvania on the eve of the Revolution in the spring of 1775, and he was elected to the Continental Congress. He was selected by Congress to act as emissary to King Louis XVI largely because of his international celebrity, and he acted in that capacity from his base in Passy, France, beginning in early 1777. After concluding the Treaty of Versailles in 1783, he completed the second portion of his memoirs. He completed the two other extant sections of his memoirs between his return to Philadelphia in 1785 and his death in 1790.

General Overviews

Because Franklin achieved so much in so many areas of intellectual, political, and literary life, overviews of Franklin tend to be either biographies or collections of essays such as the ones listed below. A study such as Granger 1964, which confines itself to literary concerns, seems very narrowly focused when compared to the work of Franklin’s more ambitious biographers, who most often view Franklin’s writing as emerging from, and connected to, his other interests and pursuits. Mulford 2008 is excellent as a work that combines the traditional themes in Franklin studies with the more sophisticated contexts supplied by more contemporary critical approaches. Hayes 2008 points to new and exciting directions in Franklin studies elaborated even more fully in the essays in Waldstreicher 2011. Lemay 1976 and Lemay 1993 offer the widest and most diverse considerations of Franklin’s interests and influences.

  • Granger, Bruce Ingham. Benjamin Franklin: An American Man of Letters. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1964.

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    First book-length treatment of Franklin in a specifically belletristic context since the 19th century, and still the most complete discussion of his literary aims and merit. Divided into sections based on genre, Granger’s overall conclusion—that “Franklin is an important man of letters” (p. 92)—is less impressive than the focused readings of individual texts.

  • Hayes, Kevin J. “Prospects for the Study of Benjamin Franklin.” Resources for American Literary Study 33 (2008): 1–18.

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    Essential article for those embarking on Franklin studies, as Hayes delineates current opportunities for scholarship in textual studies, bibliography and the sociology of texts, biography, history, and cultural studies.

  • Lemay, J. A. Leo, ed. The Oldest Revolutionary: Essays on Benjamin Franklin. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1976.

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    Includes discussions of Franklin’s writing, influences, and legacies, “representativeness,” and travel, among other subjects.

  • Lemay, J. A. Leo, ed. Reappraising Benjamin Franklin. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1993.

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    Very good collection of essays on Franklin with helpful updates to several avenues of research on Franklin by scholars old and new. Sections include essays on Franklin as a journalist and printer, his role as a revolutionary and founder and as a patron of the arts, his science, his attitudes toward immigration and native populations, and his thought and writing.

  • Mulford, Carla, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Franklin. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

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    Very helpful starting place for Franklin scholarship, this essay collection economically summarizes current knowledge in the areas of his reading, writing, philosophy, religion, statecraft, printing/engraving, cultural legacy, and the Autobiography, heretofore the primary focus of literary criticism. By including essays on each subject by very recently published scholars, Mulford argues for more expansive, global contexts for future Franklin scholarship.

  • Waldstreicher, David, ed. A Companion to Benjamin Franklin. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

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    The best collection of essays on Franklin, completely up-to-date scholarship, and another good starting point for Franklin studies. Biographical overviews precede essays on Franklin and politics, religion, race, women, writing, art, and several other categories of inquiry; many of the authors provide condensed versions of the longer works listed in this article.

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