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Mountebank Birthday

Image of a bust of Benjamin Franklin from the Philadelphia Museum. January 17, 1706—300 years ago today—Benjamin Franklin was born to Josiah Franklin, a chandler, and to Josiah’s second wife, Abiah Folger, a Puritan woman of solid stock. He was the youngest son of a large family. That he was youngest meant he could count on very little financial help from his father, so he shrewdly left Boston for Philadelphia. There he taught himself to be the kind of man one might consider good if one were prone to believe the boasts of men who boast of their own goodness. Franklin is to be lauded for being one of, if not the greatest American inventor, but not because he made the pot-bellied stove, nor because he invented bifocals, nor even for his hand in the making of the public library, or Pennsylvania University, or the public fire department. No, his greatest invention, that which rivals Plutarch’s Alexander and Rousseau, was himself.

For Franklin is a charlatan of the greatest magnitude. It was no accident that D.H. Lawrence placed him and Walt Whitman at opposite ends of his Studies of Classic American Literature. If Whitman wrapped all of America in his animal soul, Franklin battered American souls with his relentless mind. Lawrence was a sensualist, but he understood something true. “The soul of man is a vast forest, and all Benjamin intended was a neat back garden,” he wrote, and later, “I admire him…. I do not like him.”

And really, who could like him? Here was a man who was so ruthless in business that he would contrive ways to deport his competitors to the Caribbean rather than compete with them. Here was a man who discerned it was good business to do the business of government, making him a prototype of today’s military contractors. Here was a man who devised a method (after all, he did admire the Methodists) to achieve moral perfection and who was so self-satisfied he believed he had very nearly succeeded—only pride haunted him, so he said, and therefore he quipped, “a benevolent Man should allow a few Faults in himself, to keep his Friends in Countenance.” Here was a man who, though he honored churches, disdained religion and left it for others to practice—including the Sect he invented,

containing as I thought the Essentials of every known Religion, and being free of every thing that might shock the Professors of any Religion…. My Ideas at that time were, that the Sect should be begun and spread at first among young and single Men only; that each Person to be initiated should not only declare his Assent to such Creed, but should have exercis’d himself with the Thirteen Weeks Examination and Practice of the Virtues [Franklin’s method, noted above]...; that the Existence of such a Society should be kept a Secret till it was become considerable, to prevent Solicitations for the Admission of improper Persons; but that the Members should each of them search among his Acquaintance for ingenuous well-disposed Youths, to whom with prudent Caution the Scheme should be gradually communicated; That the Members should engage to afford their Advice Assistance and Support to each other in promoting one another’s Interest, Business and Advancement in Life: That for Distinction, we should be call’d the Society of the Free and Easy; Free, as being by the general Practice and Habit of the Virtues, free from the Dominion of Vice, and particularly by the Practice of Industry and Frugality, free from Debt, which exposes a Man to Confinement and a Species of Slavery to his Creditors.

—in other words, here was a man whose solution to the problems of religion was to reinvent the Freemasons; the great difference between Franklin and L. Ron Hubbard is that Franklin was too busy making business a virtue to realize he could just as well have made a business of religion and lived content! Here was a man to whom the world and the people who populate it mattered only inasmuch as it and they were useful to him. He was not the kind of man you like—He was the kind of man you keep wary eye on, lest you find yourself one day holding a one way ticket to Barbados.

And so Franklin’s greatest invention was “Benjamin Franklin,” Gentleman extraordinary. He, unlike James Frey, kept his little fabrications quiet until after he died, although he did leak the news that he was writing his life a good two dozen years before he died. The leak allowed him to include in its pages letters from other prominent men who begged him to finish the book. His life, they claimed, must surely be worth copying. Little did they know that though Franklin was a printer, when it came to his life copying was hardly his plan. He lived, he died, and by design, was resurrected a different man. As he explained the process on the Autobiography’s first page,

were it offer’d to my Choice, I should have no Objection to a Repetition of the same Life from its Beginning, only asking the Advantage Authors have in a second Edition to correct some Faults of the first. So would I if I might, besides corr[ectin]g the Faults, change some sinister Accidents and Events of it for others more favourable, but tho’ this were deny’d, I should still accept the Offer. However, since such a Repetition is not to be expected, the next Thing most like living one’s Life over again, seems to be a Recollection of that Life; and to make that Recollection as durable as possible, the putting it down in Writing.

Of course, repetition would always fail; recollection only, that is re-collection, in the way that museums’ holdings are collections and are only ever known by the way they are displayed. Franklin’s Autobiography is a collection, meant to give Franklin a new lease on his old life. He made himself, Franklin did, twice. Franklin’s known still for being a self-made man—and was he.

Happy birthday, you goat.

 

Comments

oh pish. ben franklin was a great guy. why don’t you write a birthday critique of MLK, Jr? now there was a guy who got on people’s nerves.

Teh. Especially J. Edgar Hoover.

So anyway… I can understand why you might say it’s more appropriate to berate a philandering peace monger and the national holiday he spent his entire life working to achieve, but I much prefer to slander a war profiteer at 300. It’s more rewarding.

I guess you’re right…and anyway a handful of southern states manage to undermine him anyway by creating the hybrid MLK Jr/Robert E Lee holiday. (I am not kidding!)

Oh, I know you’re not kidding. Mississippi’s one of them, right?

Yep. My mother told me this wkd. AR’s another.
Um, in case any lurking white supremacists got excited about my earlier comments, I WAS kidding then.

AR, too? That I didn’t remember…

Oh, I don’t think you need worry about lurking white supremacists. Better to worry about lurking fans of Hillary “the House of Representatives is run like a plantation, and you know what I’m talking about” Clinton.

ha, ha! i wish i did know what she’s talking about, but i still haven’t learned her secret code.

at the track the other day i saw a young woman sporting a “hillary for pres. in 2008” t-shirt, complete w/ hill’s photo on the back.

Now that’s something you’re unlikely to see in MS or AR…

you might be surprised!

Am I really so regionalist these days?

Maybe I ought to have qualified it and said, instead, “There’s something you’re unlikely to see a man (other than Chris) wearing in MS or AR.”

While I’m at it, let me take this opportunity to call out Jeremy. This place is none too classy anymore—Between Mary & Kathy & me, it’s a hangout for the dregs of the labor market. We all might as well be standing around in an alley drinking Colt 45s.

Where’s our fancypants mashed potatoes? Where’s our wine recs? I need a fix of some badly spelled cuisine, and theopolitico chicanery from académe!

i take uhm-bridge (smilely face) with your reference to my inability to spell. why don’t you just call me an awful punctuator while you’re at it…we all know it’s true

as for that…No soup for you

Humph! You didn’t even notice that “badly spelled cuisine, and theopolitical chicanery from académe” rhymed. ¿You’re losing your edge?

you’re right…you are too witty for me!

or, as suspected by most, the grind of my post is dulling my senses.

Man, it’s all about muscles. Yours are all caught up in nun-poets; mine are rotting like kim chee.

Check it out! GKB’s gettin’ up for the down stroke!

Speaking of kimchee (which I suspect I’m spelling badly): I’m in the middle of a Week of Applications, in which I put as many together as possible, and then wait, though I don’t have time to wait, not to hear from anyone. We’re coming up on the 6 month mark for another slate of “failed job applications,” which in this case you can bet are truly failed ones. Although, if I start that back, kathy will probably kill me…

off to class…whopee.

we get to talk about plato, aristotle, horace, mimesis, imitatio, ut pictora poesis, aut prodesse aut delectare, wit, conceits, and all maner of things baroque.

however, it is next week when they will kill me.

You could (although I don't recommend it) become really surly in class and refuse to answer questions. Then, when they insist, you could scream at them and berate them for not reading the text. This speech works best when given with liberal obscenities.

From my experience today, I recommend starting with Sappho. After we finished what seemed to be a pretty good discussion for the first day, one kid raised his hand, pointed to the Norton anthology and said, “If that book is so big with so many authors in it, how come we have to read anything written by a lesbian?”