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Outlines of English and American Literature
Benjamin Franklin
by Long, William J.

Standing between the two eras, and marking the transition from spiritual to practical interests, is Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), a "self-made" man, who seems well content with his handiwork. During the latter part of his life and for a century after his death he was held up to young Americans as a striking example of practical wisdom and worldly success.

The narrative of Franklin's patriotic service belongs to political rather than to literary history; for though his pen was busy for almost seventy years, during which time he produced an immense amount of writing, his end was always very practical rather than aesthetic; that is, he aimed to instruct rather than to please his readers. Only one of his works is now widely known, the incomplete Autobiography, which is in the form of a letter telling a straightforward story of Franklin's early life, of the disadvantages under which he labored and the industry by which he overcame them. For some reason the book has become a "classic" in our literature, and young Americans are urged to read it; though they often show an independent taste by regarding it askance. As an example of what may be accomplished by perseverance, and as a stimulus to industry in the prosaic matter of getting a living, it doubtless has its value; but one will learn nothing of love or courtesy or reverence or loyalty to high ideals by reading it; neither will one find in its self-satisfied pages any conception of the moral dignity of humanity or of the infinite value of the human soul. The chief trouble with the Autobiography and most other works of Franklin is that in them mind and matter, character and reputation, virtue and prosperity, are for the most part hopelessly confounded.

On the other hand, there is a sincerity, a plain directness of style in the writings of Franklin which makes them pleasantly readable. Unlike some other apostles of "common sense" he is always courteous and of a friendly spirit; he seems to respect the reader as well as himself and, even in his argumentative or humorous passages, is almost invariably dignified in expression.

Other works of Franklin which were once popular are the maxims of his Poor Richard's Almanac, which appeared annually from 1732 to 1757. These maxims--such as "Light purse, heavy heart," "Diligence is the mother of good luck," "He who waits upon Fortune is never sure of a dinner," "God helps them who help themselves," "Honesty is the best policy," and many others in a similar vein--were widely copied in Colonial and European publications; and to this day they give to Americans abroad a reputation for "Yankee" shrewdness. The best of them were finally strung together in the form of a discourse (the alleged speech of an old man at an auction, where people were complaining of the taxes), which under various titles, such as "The Way to Wealth" and "Father Abraham's Speech," has been translated into every civilized language. Following is a brief selection from which one may judge the spirit of the entire address:

    "It would be thought a hard government that should tax its people
    one tenth part of their time, to be employed in its service; but
    idleness taxes many of us much more; sloth, by bringing on
    diseases, absolutely shortens life. Sloth, like rust, consumes
    faster than labor wears, while 'The used key is always bright,' as
    Poor Richard says. 'But dost thou love life? Then do not squander
    time, for that is the stuff life is made of,' as Poor Richard says.
    How much more than is necessary do we spend in sleep, forgetting
    that the sleeping fox catches no poultry, and that there will be
    sleeping enough in the grave, as Poor Richard says. If time be of
    all things the most precious, wasting time must be, as Poor Richard
    says, the greatest prodigality; since, as he elsewhere tells us,
    'Lost time is never found again,' and what we call time enough
    always proves little enough. Let us, then, be up and be doing, and
    doing to the purpose; so by diligence shall we do more with less
    perplexity. 'Sloth makes all things difficult, but industry, all
    easy'; and, 'He that riseth late must trot all day and shall scarce
    overtake his business at night'; while 'Laziness travels so slowly
    that Poverty soon overtakes him.' 'Drive thy business, let not that
    drive thee'; and, 'Early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man
    healthy, wealthy and wise,' as Poor Richard says."


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