Translating the Man: Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography
as a New Form of Conversion Narrative
Conversion narratives like St. Augustine’s Confessions usually deal with the narrator’s spiritual awakening; thus, the focus of the work is on the narrator’s thoughts as they relate to a moral crisis and resolution in his life. Like previous conversion narratives, the apparent purpose of Franklin’s Autobiography is to record the improvement of his moral character. However, Franklin’s autobiography is a different type of narrative because he does not seem to come to one specific moment of moral crisis after which he becomes morally enlightened. Instead, Franklin’s autobiography subtly records the various points in his life that his moral superiority is recognized by others. Ultimately, Franklin’s work is different from other conversion narratives in that his narrative may be seen as a record of how the appearance of a strong moral character translates successfully to the public as much as it serves as an actual record of improvement.
Supposedly, the purpose of Franklin’s Autobiography is to match that of other conversion narratives, that purpose being to record moral failings as they lead to a moral crisis. The resolution of this crisis is to acknowledge a higher power, whose recognized presence then serves as a moral compass for the narrator. By recording this spiritual journey, the narrator provides a resource for others to examine for their improvement as well. Several points in the autobiography indicate that Franklin’s narrative may also be read in this way, most famously his “bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection” (63) found in the second part of the work. This project consists of identifying and defining thirteen virtues and then arranging them in order of difficulty so that concentrating on one virtue would result in the practice of that virtue becoming a habit and would make it easier to acquire the next virtue on the list. As a way of keeping track of the times he offended each virtue, Franklin constructs a book, similar to a ledger, in which, at the end of each day, he would mark every time he had committed a fault. This aspect of Franklin’s narrative is similar to other conversion narratives in that it requires the narrator to reflect upon his behavior each day and to make note of his moral failings; however, the manner in which Franklin sets up his record is notably different.
Rather than record moral failings through confessional prose in a journal, Franklin sets up his record in a book that resembles a ledger. This ledger-style system serves as a moral accounting of Franklin’s character which is interesting to consider for several reasons. The first reason is the way that Franklin explains how he actually records his moral missteps. Initially as he marked each moral slip, he was troubled by holes being worn in the paper as he “scrap[ed] out the marks on the paper of old faults to make room for new ones in a new course” (69). Rather than to only use the paper once, thus keeping a permanent record of his moral journey, Franklin creates a ledger on “the ivory leaves of a memorandum book,” marking the lines with a permanent stain, but noting his faults with “a black-lead pencil, which marks [he] could easily wipe out with a wet sponge” (69). Making the system permanent but the faults easy to wipe out signifies the ease with which those faults, or erratum, as Franklin notably calls them at several points in the book, could be corrected and thus forgotten. Further, Franklin’s use of the word “erratum” to note his faults is interesting in that it also indicates that flaws of the character can be corrected as easily as someone who is a printer by profession can correct flaws in the typeset.
Another way that Franklin’s recording of his moral missteps in ledger form is interesting is that it suggests that he believes that a successful moral character can be built in the same way he built his successful printing business, with notable attention to the appearance of hard work as much to the actual work. Franklin alludes to this in Part One when he tells his son that despite the fact that there were already two printers in the area, causing the general consensus to be that his business would fail, his hard work “visible to our neighbors gave us character and credit” specifically to the merchants, the group who had thought Franklin’s business would fail (46). Additionally, Franklin notes that as diligent as he actually was, he also made sure to never appear to be frivolous to others: “I drest [sic.] plainly; I was seen at no places of idle diversion” (50). Noting his dress as well as his actions is significant because it demonstrates Franklin’s concern with the human judges of his character as much as of a higher judge.
In Part Three of his Autobiography, Franklin specifically discusses God as higher judge and links this higher authority to more earthly evaluators. Franklin notes that “the most acceptable service to God is doing good to man” and that “God will certainly reward virtue and punish vice, either here or hereafter” (74). Franklin makes these statements by way of introducing the idea of a secret society, The Society of the Free and Easy, whose function it would be to admit those men who “have exercised [themselves] with the thirteen week examination and practice of the virtues, as in the before-mentioned model,” meaning the model he constructed in the second part of the book (74).
Thus Franklin comes full circle, by recounting the method that has worked for him in creating a strong moral character, he is also recounting the public acknowledgement and approval of his actions, an approval that has given him, as he tells his son, “as he tells his son, “a state of affluence and some degree of reputation in the world” (1). This public approval of Franklin turns moral character into something that can be judged by earthly judges rather than solely by a higher judge as with past conversion narratives.
Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography may be considered a conversion narrative in the same manner as earlier narratives of this type in that it does record the moral improvement of its subject. However, when one examines the subtext of the account, one sees that Franklin approaches building character in a manner similar to building a printing business. Diligence is imperative, but just as important is a public recognition of that diligence. Ultimately, Franklin’s Autobiography demonstrates that while dedication to self improvement to seek God’s grace remains at the center of the conversion narrative, the man who can effectively translate that improvement may be distinguished by public accolades as well.
Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Ed. Philip Smith.
Mineola: Dover, 1996.