His Autobiography by Benjamin Franklin
These are the first words of Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography and,
as such, the first words of the Harvard Classics. A letter to
Franklin's son, recounting Franklin's picaresque early life (from
Boston to New York to Philadelphia to Boston to Philadelphia to London
to Philadelphia), takes up roughly the first third of the
Autobiography, ending with a Memo:
Thus far was written
with the intention express'd in the beginning and therefore contains
several little family anecdotes of no importance to others. Further
letters follow, written not by Franklin but by two friends who have
come to read the first letter and urge Franklin to publish it. In response to these letters, Franklin provides a more
conventional narrative, including the kind of maxims for living we expect from Poor Richard:
Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
All of which is to say that the structure of Franklin's
Autobiography is almost Nabokovian in its oddity. And yet how fitting
it seems to the material, and to the Classics more generally, both of
which are largely concerned with passing lessons on from one generation
to the next. About an uncle of his, Franklin writes,
He had formed a short-hand of his own, which he taught me, but, never practicing it, I have now forgot it.
Franklin himself struggled self-consciously to form a short-hand for good living, one that relied on common sense rather than religious faith. Having done so, he was eager that it be passed on, practiced, and not forgotten.
If I might step back now from the edge of bathos, I should add that the chief delight in reading Franklin's Autobiography comes from stripping away the Franklin legend (printer, publisher, statesman, amateur scientist, dazzling conversationalist) to find a man, well, exactly like that legend. If the Autobiography is an act of self-mythologizing (this struck me throughout as more than possible), it is too stylish such an act to begrudge.
Journal by John Woolman
For all Franklin's charm, however, he occasionally lets loose an unsettling opinion, particularly on racial matters. Though he seemed to have an opinion about every issue of his day, he has little to say (at least here) about slavery, still prevalent throughout the Northeast in his time. One might shrug these lapses off, for Franklin was a man of his own time and place, not to be judged by 21st Century standards. The second book in Volume One, the Journal of John Woolman, serves as a corrective to this easy response.
Woolman was a staunch Abolitionist, a New Jersey Quaker who fought
to end the practice of slavery within the Society of Friends. He was
also a contemporary of Franklin's, and Franklin even published some of
his writings. Throughout his Journal, Woolman struggles with questions
that remain deeply relevant today. How responsible are we for acts our
government commits in our name? Is it appropriate to withhold material
support from such a government? Are we ethically permitted to benefit,
even indirectly, from immoral economic practices? How do we counteract
a commercial culture that plays on our vanity to create
Woolman's example also serves as a reminder, pace Richard Dawkins and others who believe that faith in God has rarely been a force for true good, that the Abolitionist movement, like the Civil Rights movement, was fundamentally religious in nature.
In fact, the only criticism I can find to make against Woolman's Journal is that it is virtually unreadable. At its worst, it's insufferably boring; at its best, merely laughably so. For whatever reason, the problem seems to rise in direct proportion to the moral propriety of the actions Woolman undertakes. On one page, he writes:
In the beginning of the twelfth month I joined, in company with my friends John Sykes and Daniel Stanton, in visiting such as had slaves. Some whose hearts were rightly exercised about them appeared to be glad of our visit, but in some places our way was more difficult. I often saw the necessity of keeping down to that root from whence our concern provided, and have cause, in reverent thankfulness, humbly to bow down before the Lord.
Admirable work, of course. And passable prose, though unlikely to elevate anyone's heartbeat. But then comes the next page:
First month, 1759 -- Having found my mind drawn to visit some of the more active members in our Society at Philadelphia, who had slaves, I met my friend John Churchman there by agreement, and we continued about a week in the city.
And the next:
Seventh Month -- I have found an increasing concern on my mind to visit some active members in our Society who have slaves, and having no opportunity of the company of such as were named in the minutes of the Yearly Meeting, I went alone to their houses, and, in the fear of the Lord, acquainted them with the exercise I was under; and, thus, sometimes by a few words, I found myself discharged a heavy burden.
Don't misunderstand: I didn't want Woolman to stop trying to talk people out of owning slaves; I just wanted him to stop telling me about it. These are pages 236, 237, and 238, respectively; they might have been just about any other three pages in the Journal.
Perhaps I'm being unfair to a man who genuinely doesn't seem to have intended these Journals for a wide readership. The real question isn't why Woolman chose to record his days, or why the Journals (which are no more repetitive than the average blog) had a readership in their time. The question is why Charles Eliot chose to include them in the Harvard Classics. The only answer I can offer is that Eliot admired Woolman, with good reason, and wanted his legacy preserved.
The Journal is widely recognized as Eliot's most
editorial choice, and it's tough to watch Homer nod so early in the
day. But if I have to read something this tedious, it might as well be
in week one, when enthusiasm is high.
Fruits of Solitude by William Penn
William Penn's Fruits of Solitude rounds out Volume One.
Penn, a Quaker convert and founder of Pennsylvania, played a large role
in creating the society in which Franklin and Woolman would flourish a
generation later. Fruits of Solitude is a collection of Franklinesque aphorisms,
Writ for private satisfaction, and now publish'd for an Help to Human Conduct.
This means that each of the three books in Volume One were composed as private documents and made public out of some sense of authorial obligation. All three are deeply concerned with one question: How are we to live? Eliot seems to be outlining a theory of literature as primarily didactic. I expect the next year to test how such a theory holds up.
About Fruits of Solitude itself, I don't have all that much
to say. Penn is a better writer by half than Woolman, and some of his
reflections will stay with me for some time. But the most memorable
tend to be the least practical.
Knowledge is the Treasure, but Judgment the Treasurer of a wise man.
This is wonderfully put, and true in its way, but what does one do with
such a fact? How does one live with it? The answer, as far as I can
tell, is that one saves it to drop at one's next dinner party. Armed
with a few of these lines, you might become as much fun in company as
Franklin famously was. Armed with all 299, you might become as much fun
A week into the Classics, I seem to be inching towards my own theory of didactic literature.
--CRB, January 7, 2007