Jill Lepore | Introduction to The Autobiography and Other Writings by Benjamin Franklin | Everyman’s Library | September 2015 | 18 minutes (4,968 words)

Below is Jill Lepore’s introductory essay to the new Everyman’s Library edition of The Autobiography and Other Writings, by Benjamin Franklin, as recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky

* * *

‘‘I could as easily make a Collection for you of all the past Parings of my Nails,’’ Benjamin Franklin wrote to his sister Jane in 1767, after she asked him to send her all his old essays on politics. It was as if, in dashing off articles, he’d been sloughing off pages, like a snake shedding skin. Franklin liked to think of himself as a book: a man of letters, spine of bone, flesh of paper, blood of ink, his skin a cover of leather, stitched. When he wrote, he molted. He could be as sneaky as a snake, too, something to bear in mind when reading his autobiography, as sly an account as anything Franklin ever allowed himself the grave indiscretion of putting on paper.

Franklin was a writer, a scientist, and a statesman but, first and last, he was a printer. He knew every form and each style, every font and each type. In his shop, he sold quills and inkstands, foolscap and folios, almanacs and spelling books. He bought rags for making paper. ‘‘READY MONEY for old RAGS, may be had of the Printer thereof,’’ he announced in the pages of his newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette. He owned paper mills and printing presses. He printed newspapers and novels, magazines and treatises. He sold, in his shop, an entire inventory of blank forms: ‘‘Bills of Lading bound and unbound, Common Blank Bonds for Money, Bonds with Judgment, Counterbonds, Arbitration Bonds, Arbitration Bonds with Umpirage, Bail Bonds, Counterbonds to save Bail harmless, Bills of Sale, Powers of Attorney, Writs, Summons, Apprentices Indentures, Servants Indentures, Penal Bills, Promissory Notes, &c. all the Blanks in the most authentick Forms, and correctly printed.’’ He was a jack-of-all-pages: authentick, and correctly printed.

Draft of Franklin's Autobiography. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Draft of Franklin’s Autobiography. Via Wikimedia Commons.

A printer of money, a trader in the authentic, a master of every form, Benjamin Franklin had a genius for counterfeit. Long after he stopped buying rags, soaking them, pressing them into pages, gracing them with ink, and selling them as books – turning rags into riches – he signed himself ‘‘B. Franklin, printer.’’ But what he liked best was not signing his name. He loved satire, imposture, and anonymity. He once wrote a parody of a gentleman’s conduct manual in the form of a letter advising a young man suffering from ‘‘violent natural Inclinations’’ –‘‘that hard-to-be govern’d Passion of Youth’’ – but unwilling to get married to remedy what ailed him, to take only older women for mistresses. ‘‘Their Conversation is more improving,’’ he remarked; they’re ‘‘more prudent and discreet,’’ and they’re better at other things, too, ‘‘every Knack being by Practice capable of Improvement,’’ not to mention, ‘‘There is no hazard of Children.’’ Then, too, ‘‘in the dark all Cats are grey’’ and, after all, ‘‘They are so grateful!!’’ Not counting his mistresses, he rarely placed his faith in the discretion of others. ‘‘Three can keep a secret if two of them are dead,’’ went one of the many proverbs Franklin signed using the name of Richard Saunders, a fictional character he’d created, a daft astrologer who was the alleged author of Poor Richard’s Almanack. (Poor Richard was Franklin’s affectionate homage to Jonathan Swift’s imaginary almanac-maker, Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq.) Most of his best fakes he never printed; instead, he read them – performed them – for friends. (‘‘Strange! that a Man who has wit enough to write a Satyr; should have folly enough to publish it,’’ Poor Richard says.) He faked court documents, elegies, and even Scripture. He was an exceptionally skilled mimic: he taught himself to write by reading Swift, and by copying the style of the essayists in an English gentlemen’s magazine, The Spectator. He once wrote a chapter of the Old Testament in pitch-perfect King James that he bound within the pages of his own Bible so that he could read it aloud to see who would fall for it. (He’d never have published it because, as Poor Richard says, ‘‘Talking against Religion is unchaining a Tyger.’’) In Franklin’s fake Genesis chapter 39, Abraham is sitting in the door of his tent at sundown when ‘‘behold a Man, bowed with Age, came from the Way of the Wilderness, leaning on a Staff.’’ Abraham invites the stranger into the tent but when the old man reveals himself an infidel, Abraham, self-righteous, kicks him out. The next morning, God, finding the old man gone, is peevish and exasperated: ‘‘Have I borne with him these hundred ninety and eight Years, and nourished him, and cloathed him, notwithstanding his Rebellion against me, and couldst not thou, that art thyself a Sinner, bear with him one Night?’’

Swift first published nearly everything he ever wrote either anonymously, or using a pen name; so did Franklin. ‘‘When the Writer conceals himself, he has the Advantage of hearing the Censure both of Friends and Enemies, express’d with more Impartiality,’’ Franklin explained. It was also more fun that way: he wished to delight himself. Some of Franklin’s satires are so cunning they weren’t discovered to be hoaxes, or his, until long after he was dead, and some, once discovered, were buried, or even destroyed. The first scholar to collect Franklin’s papers, the Harvard historian and former chaplain of Congress, Jared Sparks, who published a ten-volume edition of Franklin’s Works in the 1830s, was a humorless pedant who suppressed anything he found in Franklin that offended his sensibilities, silently cutting out of Franklin’s letters, for instance, all of his filthy jokes. Needless to say, Sparks did not include in his edition of Franklin’s Works Franklin’s advice about taking old women as mistresses and his parable against religious persecution. ‘‘If you wou’d not be forgotten As soon as you are dead and rotten,’’ Poor Richard says, ‘‘Either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing.’’ He might have added: And leave your papers in the hands of a better editor.

“He was a hard lot,’’ Mark Twain once wrote about Franklin, but all Twain or anyone else knew, for a century, was Sparks’s Franklin, which was hardly Franklin at all. In 1938, when Carl Van Doren published a biography of Benjamin Franklin, on the heels of a biography of Jonathan Swift, he explained that he felt he had no choice. It was as if Sparks had locked Franklin in a box. ‘‘The dry, prim people seem to regard him as a treasure shut up in a savings bank, to which they have the lawful key,’’ Van Doren wrote. ‘‘I herewith give him back, in grand dimensions, to his nation and the world.’’ But it was, by then, nearly too late: Franklin is still locked in that bank vault, his face on the hundred-dollar bill, his best-known essay ‘‘The Way to Wealth,’’ as if what he stood for was making money. Nothing could be less true. What Franklin stood for was making knowledge.

Much of what Sparks kept out of Franklin’s Works he set aside because it offended him, but a lot of it he never found. After Franklin’s death, his papers, including drafts of the story of his life, had been scattered. Sheaves of his papers wound up in a tailor’s shop on St. James’s Street in London, cut into sleeve patterns. Then there was the matter of disguise; it was impossible, when Sparks was writing, and it remains difficult, even today, to find everything that Franklin ever wrote. By the latest count, which is doubtless incomplete, Franklin used more than a hundred pen names. ‘‘Silence Dogood’’ was the first – he used it when he was sixteen – and the funniest; ‘‘Historicus,’’ the name under which he published an anti-slavery essay he wrote from his deathbed, the last, and the most serious. In between, he signed himself everything from the slipslop ‘‘Homespun’’ and the indelicate ‘‘FART-HING’’ to the imperious ‘‘Benevolus’’ and the pretentious ‘‘Americanus.’’ Once, as ‘‘The Busy-Body,’’ he expressed his opinion that a writer ought to be judged by his words alone – the man, his book – and that signing one’s own name to one’s essays was nothing more than an act of vanity: ‘‘Every Man will own, That an Author, as such, ought to be try’d by the Merit of his Productions only.’’ But, honestly, few writers were vainer. ‘‘Most People dislike Vanity in others whatever Share they have of it themselves,’’ he admitted, ‘‘but I give it fair Quarter wherever I meet with it.’’

Franklin’s love of anonymity and disguise make it strange that he’s best known for writing the only kind of book an author can’t publish under a fake name: an autobiography. (An aside about the title: Franklin never called it an ‘‘autobiography’’; that word wasn’t coined until, seven years after his death, it appeared in an English literary magazine, where it was meant as a joke: was there ever a sillier word? It was Sparks who first called what Franklin had written an autobiography, in all seriousness, when he included it in the first volume of his Works.) In fact, Franklin’s style is actually a very poor fit for the form, which may be why it took him nearly twenty years to write what little he did of the story of his life, why he never finished it, and why he never allowed any part of it to be printed.

Another reason the very existence of Franklin’s autobiography is surprising is that he was forever advising other people not to talk about themselves so much, because nattering on about your own life is so dreadfully tiresome: ‘‘What is it to the Company we fall into whether we quarrel with our Servants, whether our Children are froward and dirty, or what we intend to have for Dinner to morrow?’’ he asked, in ‘‘On Conversation,’’ an essay he published in the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1730. ‘‘Talk much of your-self, your Education, your Knowledge, your Circumstances, your Successes in Business, your Victories in Disputes, your own wise Sayings and Observations on particular Occasions, &c. &c. &c.,’’ Franklin wrote in 1750, in ‘‘Rules for Making Oneself a Disagreeable Companion,’’ which is nothing if not an excellent set of instructions for writers of autobiographies.

Franklin’s love of anonymity and disguise make it strange that he’s best known for writing the only kind of book an author can’t publish under a fake name: an autobiography.

* * *

Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston in 1706, his father a poor candle-maker, his mother the daughter of a banished dissident. He was the youngest of his father’s ten sons. (His sister Jane, born in 1712, and the youngest of their father’s seven daughters, was, his closest confidant. Over the course of their very long lives – he died in 1790, she in 1794 – he wrote more letters to her than he wrote to anyone else.) The central fact of Benjamin Franklin’s life is that he rose from nearly nothing to become not the wealthiest but certainly the most accomplished and famous American who had ever lived. That’s why he decided to write the story of his life. ‘‘Having emerg’d from the Poverty & Obscurity in which I was born & bred, to a State of Affluence & some Degree of Reputation in the World’’ and ‘‘so well succeeded,’’ he explained, he thought his readers might want to know how he did it, ‘‘as they may find some of them suitable to their own Situations, & therefore fit to be imitated.’’ But Franklin, of course, can’t be imitated. And it’s best never to take him at his word.

What ate at Franklin – how he’d risen from poverty and obscurity to affluence and reputation – eats at him not only in his autobiography but also in all of his best writing. His cleverest satires have to do with bad starts. He once wrote an essay about inequality in the form of a petition from ‘‘the Letter Z’’ to Swift’s Isaac Bickerstaff, complaining ‘‘that he is not only plac’d at the Tail of the Alphabet, when he had as much Right as any other to be at the Head; but is, by the Injustice of his enemies totally excluded from the Word WISE, and his Place injuriously filled by a little, hissing, crooked, serpentine, venomous Letter called s.’’ (Bickerstaff refused to grant the petition, instead decreeing ‘‘that Z be admonished to be content with his Station, forbear Reflections upon his Brother Letters, & remember his own small Usefulness, and the little Occasion there is for him in the Republick of Letters.’’) Franklin made the same argument – about the accident of birth, and the artificiality of hierarchy – in another petition, written by one of a pair of sisters:

The two eyes of man do not more resemble, nor are capable of being upon better terms with each other, than my sister and myself, were it not for the partiality of our parents, who make the most injurious distinctions between us. From my infancy, I have been led to consider my sister as a being of a more elevated rank. I was suffered to grow up without the least instruction, while nothing was spared in her education. She had masters to teach her writing, drawing, music, and other accomplishments; but if by chance I touched a pencil, a pen, or a needle, I was bitterly rebuked; and more than once I have been beaten for being awkward, and wanting a graceful manner. It is true, my sister associated me with her upon some occasions; but she always made a point of taking the lead, calling upon me only from necessity, or to figure by her side.

He signed it ‘‘The Left Hand.’’

Every writer begins life as a reader. ‘‘From a Child I was fond of Reading,’’ Franklin writes in his autobiography. He ‘‘read his Bible at five years old,’’ Jane remembered. He ‘‘studied incessantly’’ she said, and was ‘‘addicted to all kinds of reading.’’ The story of his life, as Franklin told it, is a collection of memories that begin the day he first found meaning on a page: ‘‘I do not remember when I could not read.’’ He ate books like air; at his father’s house, he gasped for them: he was suffocating. ‘‘My Father’s little Library consisted chiefly of Books in polemic Divinity,’’ he complained. But he did find on his father’s narrow shelves a few books he liked, especially Plutarch’s Lives, a collection of biographies of famous men: ancient Greek and Roman orators and statesmen. ‘‘My design is not to write Histories but lives,’’ Plutarch explained. ‘‘And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their characters and inclinations, than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles.’’ Franklin breathed that in, and took it to heart.

In 1718, when he was sixteen, Franklin was apprenticed to his older brother, James, who’d just opened a printing shop in Boston. ‘‘I now had Access to better Books,’’ he explained, exulting. He read everything in the shop. Then he started to swap books with apprentices all over town. ‘‘Often I sat up in my Room reading the greatest Part of the Night.’’ He read and read. It was in the library at his brother’s printing shop that he found Swift’s The Battle of the Books (1704), a bloody-minded satire about longdead writers living on, in the pages of their books, and waging a war of ideas in a well-stocked library. ‘‘When Virgil is mentioned, we are not to understand the Person of a famous Poet, call’d by that Name,’’ Swift explained, ‘‘but only certain Sheets of Paper, bound up in Leather, containing in Print, the Works of the said Poet.’’

Working as a printer turned Franklin from a reader into a writer. ‘‘I hereby invite all Men, who have Leisure, Inclination and Ability, to speak their Minds with Freedom, Sense and Moderation, and their Pieces shall be welcome to a Place in my Paper,’’ his brother announced in 1721, when he began printing a newspaper, the New-England Courant. ‘‘Being still a Boy, & suspecting that my Brother would object to printing any Thing of mine in his Paper if he knew it to be mine,’’ Franklin wrote, ‘‘I contriv’d to disguise my Hand, & writing an anonymous Paper I put it in at Night under the Door of the Printing House.’’ To publish his pieces in his brother’s paper, he devised a penname: Silence Dogood.

In her first essay, Silence Dogood introduced herself to her readers by offering some remarks on the nature of authorship, complained that she felt obligated to reveal herself to her readers, ‘‘since it is observed, that the Generality of People, now a days, are unwilling either to commend or dispraise what they read, until they are in some measure informed who or what the Author of it is, whether he be poor or rich, old or young, a Schollar or a Leather Apron Man, &c. and give their Opinion of the Performance, according to the Knowledge which they have of the Author’s Circumstances.’’ In her second essay, she offered some observations about biography. ‘‘Histories of Lives are seldom entertaining, unless they contain something either admirable or exemplar,’’ Franklin wrote, as Silence Dogood. ‘‘And since there is little or nothing of this Nature in my own Adventures, I will not tire your Readers with tedious Particulars of no Consequence, but will briefly, and in as few Words as possible, relate the most material Occurrences of my Life.’’

An essay by Silence Dogood. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Franklin ran away from Boston in 1723, when he was seventeen, four years before he was to have finished his apprenticeship. He went, by boat, to New York and then headed for Philadelphia, until a squall crashed his ship into Long Island. During the storm, Franklin rescued a drunken Dutchman who was drowning; in the man’s pocket, he found a copy of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, which, in the autobiography, gives Franklin the opportunity to reflect on Bunyan’s having been ‘‘the first that I know of who mix’d Narration & Dialogue, a Method of Writing very engaging to the Reader, who in the most interesting Parts finds himself as it were brought into the Company, & present at the Discourse. De foe in his Cruso, his Moll Flanders, Religious Courtship, Family Instructor, & other Pieces, has imitated it with Success. And Richardson has done the same in his Pamela, &c.’’ The novel, as a genre, was new, but Franklin was a keen reader of fiction; in fact, he’s better understood as a writer of fiction than as an autobiographer. He believed the ‘‘Features of Fiction’’ to include an aim at entertainment, altogether different from ‘‘a mere dry Account of Facts, which, tho’ all possible and probable, are none of them wonderful like the Incidents of a Novel.’’ What better clue could he have left that the story of his life borrows more from the conventions of the novel than from those of history?

After Philadelphia, Franklin sailed to London; he was there until 1726, leaving just a few months before Swift published Gulliver’s Travels (whose author, as stated on the title page, was not Jonathan Swift but Lemuel Gulliver). Sailing back to Philadelphia, Franklin decided he needed a plan, if what he wanted was to ‘‘write what may be worth the reading,’’ and do what was worth doing. From then on, Franklin kept one eye, always, on immortality. In 1728, at the decidedly young age of twenty-six, he wrote his own epitaph, rather long before it was needed:

The Body of
B. Franklin,
Like the Cover of an old Book,
Its Contents torn out,
And stript of its Lettering and Gilding,
Lies here, Food for Worms.
Yet the Work shall not be wholly lost:
For it will, as he believ’d, appear once more,
In a new & more perfect Edition,
Corrected and amended
By the Author.

Swift himself could not have said it better.

He opened a printing shop in Philadelphia and began printing the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1729. He climbed and climbed. ‘‘It was about this time that I conceiv’d the bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection,’’ he writes in his autobiography. If a man is a book, might not his errors be corrected, like errata? ‘‘I made a little Book in which I allotted a Page for each of the Virtues,’’ Franklin explained, counting thirteen virtues: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquillity, chastity, and humility. ‘‘I rul’d each Page with red Ink, so as to have seven Columns, one for each Day of the Week, marking each Column with a Letter for the Day.’’ Every week he marked his faults with a black spot; at the end of the week, he tried to erase them. But ink is not erasable and so, ‘‘by scraping out the Marks on the Paper of old Faults to make room for new Ones in a new Course,’’ Franklin’s little book ‘‘became full of Holes.’’ He tried keeping track of his faults on sheets of ivory, which he wiped off with a wet sponge. But, in the end, he gave up. No man’s life can be free of errors.

Few Americans have done more to establish institutions to promote what Franklin called ‘‘useful knowledge.’’ He founded the first lending library in America, the first philosophical society, the first public hospital. He turned to public service. He was elected to the assembly; he was appointed postmaster. He retired from the printing business in 1748, at the age of forty-two, in order to devote himself to his experiments with electricity, and to public service. In 1749, his letters describing his experiments were read at the Royal Society in London. By the 1750s, a decade during which he received four honorary degrees, Franklin the man and Franklin the writer were both so well known that even his private letters circulated, in manuscript. His friend Mather Byles wrote from Boston, ‘‘The Superstition with which we size and preserve little accidental Touches of your Pen, puts one in mind of the Care of the Virtuosi to collect the Jugs and Galipots with the Paintings of Raphael.’’

Franklin sailed to England, once more, in 1757, as a colonial representative. He spent most of the rest of his life in London and Paris. It was in England, in 1771, at the age of sixty-five, that he began writing the story of his life.

‘‘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,’’ he explained, comparing the mistakes he’d made in his life to so many printer’s errors, to be noted on a page of errata, in the back matter of a second edition of the work. ‘‘However, since such a Repetition is not to be expected, the 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.’’ If he couldn’t fix his errors, he might as well turn his life into a book. But, what with one thing and another, he never got around to finishing it. (It ends in 1757, at the beginning of his second trip to London, when Franklin was only fifty-one.) Most of the writing Franklin did in the 1770s and 1780s concerned not the facts of his life but the nature of the dispute between England and America. Abroad, Franklin gained a reputation as a clever diplomat, but also as a dissembler. ‘‘He had wit at will,’’ John Adams remarked. ‘‘He had a satire that was good-natured or caustic, Horace or Juvenal, Swift or Rabelais, at his pleasure. He had talents for irony, allegory, and fable.’’ Adams didn’t trust him.

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.

In 1774, as tensions between the colonies and Parliament mounted, Franklin was dismissed from his royally appointed office as deputy postmaster of America. He was, in the public prints, much maligned. ‘‘You will hear before this comes to hand, that I am depriv’d of my Office,’’ he wrote Jane. ‘‘Don’t let this give you any Uneasiness. You and I have almost finished the Journey of Life; we are now but a little way from home, and have enough in our Pockets to pay the Post Chaises.’’ But Franklin was nowhere near the end of his journey.

Returning to Philadelphia in May 1775, his eloquence proved pivotal at the Continental Congress. ‘‘We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal and independent, that from equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness,’’ Jefferson wrote, in his draft of the Declaration of Independence. Franklin scratched out ‘‘sacred & undeniable’’ and wrote, instead, ‘‘self-evident.’’ But he spent less than a year and a half in Philadelphia; in October of 1776 he sailed for France, as one of a three-man commission charged with securing French support in the war against Britain. The most famous American spent very little time in America. He came back only after the Treaty of Paris was signed, in 1783. No single delegate, aside from James Madison, was more important to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, which Franklin attended when he was eighty-one years old. ‘‘The Publick having as it were eaten my Flesh,’’ he wrote to Jane, it ‘‘seem’d now resolv’d to pick my Bones.’’

In November of 1789, Franklin, knowing that he was dying, sent what he’d written of the story of his life to two friends in France. He wanted to know, from these men, what to do with what he had written. ‘‘I am not without my Doubts concerning the Memoirs, whether it would be proper to publish them, or not, at least during my Lifetime,’’ he explained. ‘‘I am persuaded there are many Things that would, in Case of Publication, be best omitted. I therefore request it most earnestly of you, my dear Friend, that you would examine them carefully and critically … and give me your candid and friendly Advice.’’

He then sent a copy of the manuscript to the printer Benjamin Vaughan in London, requesting that he arrange for his good friend the Welsh clergyman and radical Richard Price to read it. Price answered Franklin’s letter that May, not knowing that Franklin had died in April. ‘‘Your life has been so distinguished that your account of it must, if made public, excite much curiosity and be read with eagerness,’’ Price wrote. Then, he equivocated: ‘‘I cannot however help wishing that the qualities and talents which produced this eminence had been aided by a faith in Christianity and the animating hopes of a resurrection to an endless life with which it inspires.’’ But Franklin’s friends in Paris, London, New York, and Philadelphia, put those qualms aside when they began printing what Franklin had written, some of them using the title, The Private Life of Benjamin Franklin, Written by Himself.

A ‘‘private life’’ was the title generally given to a novel, written with all the intimacy, and all the artifice, of Laurence Sterne’s Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759–1767), a novel Franklin adored. (‘‘’Tis wrote only for the curious & inquisitive,’’ Sterne told his reader in a conspiratorial whisper. ‘‘Shut the door.’’) Those who knew Franklin best knew the story of his life for a fiction. Much of the most interesting parts of his life – including his sister Jane – he simply left out. Like his little book of virtues, Franklin’s autobiography is ‘‘full of Holes.’’ He made of himself a set of parables, a longer version of his ‘‘Advice to a Young Tradesman,’’ or a collection of Poor Richard’s proverbs that he’d collected and seen printed as ‘‘The Way to Wealth’’: a recipe for rising from rags to riches. ‘‘His name was familiar to government and people,’’John Adams wrote to Jefferson in 1811, ‘‘to kings, courtiers, nobility, clergy, and philosophers, as well as plebeians, to such a degree that there was scarcely a peasant or a citizen, a valet de chambre, coachman or footman, a lady’s chambermaid or a scullion in a kitchen, who was not familiar with it, and who did not consider him a friend to human kind. When they spoke of him, they seemed to think he was to restore the golden age.’’

Franklin once wrote that he’d prefer, ‘‘to an ordinary death,’’ having himself preserved by ‘‘being immersed in a cask of Madeira wine,’’ with the idea that he could be decanted, a century later, and see what had become of the world he’d loved so much. But, failing that, by his discriminating estimation, a man’s best chance at immortality was to become a writer so famous that he’d live on, embalmed in his own books: Franklin, the man, would be buried, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, but Franklin, the Works, could rest, forever, on a shelf, ink and paper, leather and thread.

The Private Life of Benjamin Franklin, Written by Himself, became the most popular autobiography ever written. Franklin would have expected no less. It would have given him endless pleasure and delight. He wrote to be read, by everyone. ‘‘If a Man would that his Writings have an Effect on the Generality of Readers,’’ he advised, ‘‘he had better imitate that Gentleman, who would use no Word in his Works that was not well understood by his Cook-maid.’’ He wanted his dear reader to reach out, pull that book down press it open, and read within it the story of his life. But he knew, too, that to pull Franklin down from a shelf and turn to the first page of the book of his life is to open him up the way the gowned anatomist plunges into a pale and waxen corpse: with a sharp knife.

* * *

From the Book: The Autobiography and Other Writings, by Benjamin Franklin. Introduction copyright © 2015 by Jill Lepore. Published by arrangement with Everyman’s Library, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.