October 26: In which I borrow snark

What this blog needs are some more goddamn charts.

Ben Franklin and his huge ego return after an absence of six months. I confess to be rather charmed by people who acknowledge their own huge egos -- it's what makes me well fitted for show business. And Franklin is never more disarming, and his ego never huger, than when he shows you how he conceals it:
I continu’d...the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence; never using, when I advanced any thing that may possibly be disputed, the words certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather say, I conceive or apprehend a thing to be so and so; it appears to me, or I should think it so or so, for such and such reasons; or I imagine it to be so; or it is so, if I am not mistaken. This habit, I believe, has been of great advantage to me when I have had occasion to inculcate my opinions, and persuade men into measures that I have been from time to time engag’d in promoting.
Then he goes on to show Alexander Pope how he could have written his verse better, ending that particular passage with "This, however, I should submit to better judgments." Ending a passage on modesty by modestly submitting an immodest rewriting of a famous author -- I find that a little showy, like Rickey Henderson's old "snatch" catch; but when you're Rickey, or Ben, different rules apply.

This is also the passage where he shows us how he would get up early and rework essays from "The Spectator" to practice writing good. While reading it, I realized I never did anything like that, nor will I, and for a moment my prized equanimity that I retain concerning the reality that this is as good a writer as I'm ever going to be was upset. But then I remembered I had another writer of genius on my side, and I can't believe I haven't quoted him in the other two Franklin entries. Ben, say hello to my little friend:
He was always proud of telling how he entered Philadelphia, for the first time, with nothing in the world but two shillings in his pocket and four rolls of bread under his arm. But really, when you come to examine it critically, it was nothing. Anybody could have done it....

Benjamin Franklin did a great many notable things for his country, and made her young name to be honored in many lands as the mother of such a son. It is not the idea of this memoir to ignore that or cover it up. ...I merely desired to do away with somewhat of the prevalent calamitous idea among heads of families that Franklin acquired his great genius by working for nothing, studying by moonlight, and getting up in the night instead of waiting til morning like a Christian, and that this programme, rigidly inflicted, will make a Franklin of every father's fool. It is time these gentlemen were finding out that these execrable eccentricities of instinct and conduct are only the evidences of genius, not the creators of it. I wish I had been the father of my parents long enough to make them comprehend this truth, and thus prepare them to let their son have an easier time of it. When I was a child I had to boil soap, notwithstanding my father was wealthy, and I had to get up early and study geometry at breakfast, and peddle my own poetry, and do everything just as Franklin did, in the solemn hope that I would be a Franklin some day. And here I am.

Photo by flickr user Mr. Willeeumm used with a Creative Commons license.


Anonymous said...

The point with Franklin is, that his genius was not wasted because the colonies in American allowed for him to educate himself and become a success regardless of the fact that he came from very humble beginnings and fathered an illegitimate child.

The freedom allowed in the New World, where the class system was not rigidly enforced, was what allowed a genius of humble birth to realize his potential. Had he been born in England, his fate could have very well consisted of wasting his potential in a position that befitted the level of his birth instead of his talent, and he probably would have died from drink like many a poor Englishman and Irishman born into that class system.

That is what Franklin represents, not self made genius, the genius was there. He represented the way genius can flourish with unlimited opportunities, he represented what man could make of himself if class and money did not define him from birth. In the years leading up to the French Revolution, this was a very popular concept in Europe, and it is part of what made Franklin so wildly popular.