The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin By Benjamin Franklin Summary and Analysis Part 1: Section 4 - A Young Man about Town

Summary

In April of 1724, carrying a flattering letter about himself from Governor Keith, Franklin sailed to Boston, ostensibly to visit friends. His appearance delighted his family, which had not heard from him for seven months. His brother James resented his new suit, new watch, and ample pocket money, however, and complained that Benjamin had humiliated him by a display of affluence before the workmen. Franklin's father felt that Governor Keith must lack judgment to think of setting so young a lad up in business, and refused to provide the necessary money, though he did promise to supplement the amount Benjamin could save by living frugally until he was 21. Though Benjamin was unable to secure his father's backing, he at least left Boston with his blessing.

On the trip back, Franklin's boat stopped at Newport, Rhode Island. Here Benjamin visited his brother John, through whom he met a man named Vernon, who asked him to collect a debt in Pennsylvania. He also met two young women and a Quaker lady who came aboard the boat at Newport. But the Quaker warned Benjamin against the other two women, to his later relief; for when the boat docked at New York, where the ladies had invited Benjamin to visit them, the Captain missed some goods, had the lodgings of the two searched, and found the stolen articles there. Benjamin felt lucky to have escaped involvement with them.

While in Boston, Franklin had talked so enthusiastically of Philadelphia that his friend John Collins decided to return with him, and started out by land to meet Benjamin in New York. But when Franklin joined Collins, he found that his friend had already lost so much money through drinking and gambling that Franklin had to pay his bills. The Governor of New York heard of Franklin's supply of books from the ship's captain, and invited him for a visit; but Collins was unable to go along because he was too intoxicated. The occasion, however, was important to Franklin, because "this was the second Governor who had done me the Honour to take Notice of me, which to a poor Boy like me was very pleasing." Collins and Franklin proceeded to Philadelphia, picking up Vernon's money en route. But Collins borrowed most of it, which he never repaid, and which Franklin worried about ceaselessly, for fear Vernon would ask for it back. Franklin considered his loaning out another man's money another of the "great Errata of my Life."

Collins was unable to find work, but continued to live at Franklin's expense, and to drink. Soon the two began to quarrel.

Then, while boating, the intoxicated Collins refused to row, and Franklin refused to row him. Collins threatened to throw Franklin overboard, but when he approached was himself tossed over. Keeping the boat just out of reach, Franklin kept asking whether Collins would row, and Collins kept refusing until he. grew thoroughly tired. He was finally taken back in the boat, but the incident strained their friendship so seriously that Collins went to Barbados as a tutor and never contacted Franklin again.

Governor Keith offered to set Benjamin up in business and suggested that Franklin choose his own equipment in England. So Franklin prepared to leave on the annual ship to London, meanwhile living pleasantly. He was constantly in the company of Keimer, his employer, who loved to argue; but Benjamin so deftly used his Socratic method that Keimer would hardly answer the most common question without asking first, "What do you intend to infer from that?" Keimer respected Franklin's argumentative powers enough to propose that they together establish a new religious sect: Keimer would preach the doctrines and Franklin would answer the critics. But Franklin refused to cooperate unless he could contribute some doctrines, too. For example, Franklin would agree with Keimer that no man should cut his beard, and that Saturday should be observed as the Sabbath, on the condition that nobody should eat animal food. Since Keimer was a glutton, Franklin decided to divert himself by "half-starving him." Both agreed to try the new diet, which suited Franklin because it was cheap. When Keimer could stand it no longer, however, he ordered a dinner of roast pig, to which he invited Benjamin and two ladies. But the pig was set on the table too soon, and Keimer devoured the meal before his guests could arrive.

Franklin successfully courted Miss Read, but her mother persuaded the two 18-year-olds not to become engaged until after his return from abroad. He also had three close male friends — Charles Osborne, Joseph Watson, and James Ralphall readers and writers of poetry. Ralph, especially, wished to be a poet, though the others discouraged him. As for Franklin, "I approv'd the amusing one's self with Poetry now and then, so far as to improve one's Language, but no farther." Once each agreed to write a poetic version of the Eighteenth Psalm. Sure that his version would be attacked unfairly, Ralph persuaded Franklin to present it as if it were his own. Osborne declared it an improvement over the original and attacked Ralph for criticizing it. This incident, over which Osborne was later teased, convinced Ralph to become a poet. Franklin ends his account of the group by saying that Watson died in his arms a few years later, and Osborne became a rich lawyer in the West Indies, but died young: "He and I had made a serious Agreement, that the one who happen'd first to die, should if possible make a friendly Visit to the other, and acquaint him how he found things in that Separate State. But he never fulfill'd his Promise."

Analysis

This section shows Franklin at his most light-hearted, and contains some of the most admired passages in the Autobiography. Portraying the life of a young Philadelphian, it is a good record of the ways in which young people of the day amused themselves, as well as of the shrewdly good-humored young Benjamin. Among other things, it suggests that the love of literature among the colonists was great enough to make James Ralph determine to live by his poetry — at least "till Pope cured him" by ridiculing him in the Dunciad. The character sketches of Franklin's churlish brother James and of Keimer have been highly praised for their compact vividness. Keimer's gluttonous consumption of an entire roast pig, for example, has been cited not only for its inherent humor but also because Keimer appears so thoroughly individualized a character.

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