Introduction to American Literature
EN2230 – Fall/Winter 2011/2012 – Geoff Hamilton
Lecture 3 – Mythologies of Self-Making – Sept 21
Benjamin Franklin – 18 Century
- He was a printer, a politician, a postmaster, a diplomat, etc.
- Known for his role as a founding father.
- Invented bifocals, flexible catheter, Franklin stove, odometer, machine for
- He claimed that lightening was like electricity; he claimed that you could control it
and use it artificially.
- Wrote satires, political philosophies and his famous autobiography.
o Does a good job in identifying and summarizing his ideals.
- As an enlightenment figure, he is challenging the puritan ideals.
o Puritans rely not on reason but on faith.
o Franklin was interested in reason – interested in rationalizing his way
through life. Instead of looking into the bible, he would look to the natural
world; he would study it and not assume that it was already written but
instead find answers on his own.
o Franklin reverses the puritan trust on faith.
- Mentions that Socrates was one of his early heroes.
o Socrates is known for asking questions and pointing out information to
people who thought they knew but didn’t know.
- His lack of interest in human corruption – puritans are extremely serious about
o Franklin stresses the perfectibility of human – he cares about how to
improve yourself, how to take what’s weak or broken in youself and fix it.
- Franklin is a great representative of American optimism.
o Always emphasize what can be done with human lives, how people can
create and recreate themselves.
- Initiated the mythology of the self-made man; the person who through only their
own efforts and own resources can make their careers.
Autobiography Part 1
- The Franklinean personality is there upfront, and if you don’t like him you won’t
like the book.
o Page 231 – last 6 lines – ‘most people dislike vanity in others…’
He’s talking about vanity.
He’s telling us the difference between him and the puritan views.
He’s saying that there’s nothing wrong with being vain and that
there’s nothing wrong with liking yourself.
o Page 235 – anecdote about when he was a kid and stealing stones to
make a play area
Introduces these incidents to tell us about mistakes that he’s made
in his youth. You can’t miss that when he’s telling this story, he’s also
He’s pretending to be self-critical but he’s really not. He tells you
that he’s deliberately flattering himself.
o Page 239 – he’s telling us about his systematic project of self-
He betters himself by reading a journal and then rewriting it better.
Showing us how he betters himself through his process.
o Page 240 - talks about his cultivation of scepticism –
When he talks about Socrates and his questions.
He gets in a number of interesting self-compliments when he tells
us what he did.
He tells us that he was a child protégé that was upstaging his older
He’s always going to attack hard and fast social rules. He won’t
accept things as they are as the truth.
o Page 252 – talks about the fish, how he convinced himself that it’s okay to
He talked himself out of being a vegetarian by rationalizing that
since fish eat other fish, it’s okay for humans to eat them as well –
The old historical convention truth is not accepted by him – instead
he questions it and thinks about it, uses his reason and comes to a
conclusion that is quite different.
He can be extremely pragmatic – to the extent of egotism; because
he is a smart guy, he is going to come up with answers that please
• Gatsby does the same thing – he rationalizes the treatment
that he gives people because he tells himself that Daisy is
- The puritan idea was to accept the answers that were given to people previously.
- Page 258 – running joke about his mistakes in like being errata (like an error) –
o Franklin says that our lives are like that. Like text that are published and
can be corrected some how.
o Franklin believes that we are all works in progress and therefore we can
eradicate our mistakes and our sins.
The puritans were steeped in sin and the mistakes that we made
should haunt us.
- Like the puritans, he was very focused on examining the self;
o Puritans: always trying to find what’s wrong with people and how to fix it