Critical Essays Franklin's Writing Style


Franklin believed that good writing was smooth, clear, and short. It is an amusing commentary on the lesser talents of his critics that they have needed so many words — "simple," "clear," "terse," "limpid," "economical," "plain," etc. — to say that Franklin's prose met his personal criteria. The simplicity of the style is so dominant a characteristic, in fact, that the major efforts of some critics are spent pointing out exceptions to the rule. Some versions of the Autobiography do contain complex, unclear sentences, for example:

Having emerged from the poverty and obscurity in which I was born and bred to a state of affluence and some degree of reputation in the world, and having gone so far through life with a considerable share of felicity, the conducing means I made use of, which, with the blessing of God, so well succeeded, my posterity may like to know, as they may find some of them suitable to their own situations, and therefore fit to be imitated.

This sentence was actually revised in the copy of the manuscript that Benjamin Bache made, or at least in the version Temple Franklin printed, to fit the style in which Franklin usually wrote:

From the poverty and obscurity in which I was born, and in which I passed my earliest years, I have raised myself to a state of affluence and some degree of celebrity in the world. As constant good fortune has accompanied me even to an advanced period of life, my posterity will perhaps be desirous of learning the means that I employed, and which, thanks to Providence, so well succeeded with me. They also deem them fit to be imitated, should any of them find themselves in similar circumstances.

But because nobody can prove absolutely that the improvement was devised by Franklin instead of a grandson, the more difficult version is usually printed. The only warranted conclusion about his style one can draw from such sentences, however, is that Franklin, like all other writers, lapsed into awkward constructions occasionally as he wrote his first draft. Even the most caviling critics have been forced to the grudging admission that Franklin's prose usually stands up remarkably well when compared to that of his peers, and — exceptions noted — that it is remarkably smooth, dear, and short.

Franklin's personal history is like Shakespeare's histories of England — true in some aesthetic sense more often than factually accurate. But, though Franklin's facts are inexact as often as not, we tend to trust his accounts because of another important stylistic characteristic: his objective tone. His apparent willingness to acknowledge his own imperfections, and his understated accounts of his own triumphs, make him appear a man who keeps as sharp an eye on himself as he does on others. The apparent objectivity with which he recalls but never dwells unduly upon a personal insult, or an attempted bribe, or a compliment, or an honor — this carefully cultivated illusion of fairness — explains a great deal of the trust and consequent admiration the Autobiography inspires.

Another pleasing stylistic characteristic is Franklin's willingness to speculate about the emotions or attitudes causing men to act as they did. His summary of Governor Keith — "He wish'd to please every body; and having little to give, he gave Expectations" — is not only a beautifully turned English sentence but also an insightful analysis, without the rancor Keith might have inspired in lesser men. This interest in psychology diminishes as the older Franklin takes up the tale, but it never entirely disappears. Even in the last section, Franklin explains his own motives for insisting on dealing with the Proprietors personally, instead of with their cantankerous attorney, Ferdinando Paris.

Finally, the style of the Autobiography delights as a reflection of the man himself. And just as Franklin seemed to many of his contemporaries a kind of ideal man-of-the-world, so Franklin's style also fulfills the literary ideals upheld by the eighteenth century: whether long or short, the sentences are compact, the grammatical structures carefully and tightly controlled to make meaning instantly evident, the vocabulary forceful and direct. While the word is so vague that it covers almost any writing that pleases the reader, most critics end by saying that Franklin's style had grace.

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