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The Making of an American (Dream): Franklin’s The Autobiography “We create ourselves out of the stories we tell about our lives, stories that impose purpose.

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Presentation on theme: "The Making of an American (Dream): Franklin’s The Autobiography “We create ourselves out of the stories we tell about our lives, stories that impose purpose."— Presentation transcript:

1 The Making of an American (Dream): Franklin’s The Autobiography “We create ourselves out of the stories we tell about our lives, stories that impose purpose and meaning on experiences that often seem random and discontinuous. As we scrutinize our own past in the effort to explain ourselves to ourselves, we discover - or invent - consistent motivations, characteristic patterns, fundamental values, a sense of self. Fashioned out of memories, our stories become our identities.” – Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard Magazine (2003) Harvard Magazine (2003) In telling the story of my father’s life, it’s impossible to separate fact from fiction, the man from the myth. The best I can do is to tell it the way he told me. It doesn’t always make sense and most of it never happened... but that’s what kind of story this is. – William Bloom, Big Fish

2 Autobiography as a genre  “ontologies of the self” (ontology: the study of being; an ontology of the self is a person’s account of how he or she came to be)  ontologies as a form of personal mythmaking: “the autobiographer’s backward gaze doesn’t just tell events—it sees them as part of a design that exists only because the writer had decided that one explanation (and no other) makes sense of his life.’ (Susan Wise Bauer, ). Hence the autobiographer’s story of an event “isn’t an objective reconstruction of the past. Instead, it is part of a tale constructed by a writer who has much in common with a novelist; [the writer] is making a point and marshalling his plot points so that they lead to a climactic interpretation…he chooses a meaning for his life and arranges the events of his life to reflect this meaning” (116). What meaning, or mythic pattern, does Franklin choose for his life ?

3 Mythic Patterns Offers a myth or trope of the American self, its origins and destiny, that has become entrenched in the American psyche and is part of the collective national experience. Franklin virtually invented— and publicized—the idea that in America people did not inherit, as Europeans did, fixed historical roles. He is himself a “type” for the rags to riches dream (pg. 7). Man is not predetermined. Will is the driving force that leads to success.

4 Language reveals desire  The “meaning” the author chooses reflects what Dan McAdams calls “patterns of desire,” the psychological motivations that animate our ontologies of the self: described by psychologist David Bakan as “agency and communion” (McAdams 71). “Agency refers to the individual’s striving to separate from others, to master the environment, to assert, protect, and expand the self. The aim is to become a powerful and autonomous ‘agent,’ a force to be reckoned with. By contrast, communion refers to the individual’s striving to lose his or her own individuality b merging with others, participating in something that is larger than the self, and relating to other selves in a warm, close, intimate, and loving ways” (McAdams 71).

5 Agency: “Master” and mastery “manly freedom” (10) “I was generally a leader among the boys… it shows an early projecting public spirit…” (11) “bound to my brother” (13); “Though a brother, he considered himself as my master” (16); “his harsh and tyrannical treatment of me” (17) “…make me master of it” (14) in ref. to language Keimer: “put on more of the master” (36); reference to Keimer as “master” on page 37 List of virtues: a plan for self-mastery

6 Analysis? Franklin’s ontology of the self posits… an agentic or communal world? What does Franklin achieve by fashioning an agentic self? (a portrait of a unified, stable, autonomous self? –a comforting metanarrative or myth of the self) What other psychological motivations are behind Franklin’s narrative of the self? (i.e., the necessity of transmission: “to represent the transmission of something good within the self to the next generation” (McAdams 37), thereby achieving a type of immortality. William Bloom in Big Fish: “The man tells his stories so many times that he becomes the stories. They live on after him. And in that way, he becomes immortal.”)—CONTRAST PAGE 7 WITH PAGE 40: an older Franklin; immediate audience (“Dear Son) / potential audience (“my posterity”/“they”—writing to us)

7 Megathemes in The Autobiography Franklin draws on certain recurring images, motifs, and themes that animate his personal myth and which reflect “patterns of desire” (i.e.., the need for personal agency): Franklin as model to be emulated Faith in the reality of the world and truth as revealed through reason: page 27 (man pilots his own destiny) Water imagery: water as a metaphor for Franklin’s evolving identity; water as fluid, ever-changing, symbolic of rebirth, renewal, freedom (sea versus land binary – page 12) Character contrasts: Collins (24), Keimer (26, 37), Ralph (29), beerdrinkers (31) –together, these examples form a narrative by which Franklin privileges himself over his dimwitted counterparts Identity as rhetorical construction: Governor Keith who reads Franklin’s letter and concludes he is “a young man of promising parts” (22) Language as power: a rhetorical strategy at the core of Franklin’s self-presentation; he grasped that mastering rhetoric was a key to competing successfully for the prizes the world offers: power, influence, authority – language as currency and consolidation of power—pg – pg , Franklin imitates and “improves” others’ writings – tool for persuasion: Franklin’s view of effective arguing on pg (uses his method on us!) – Linguistic manipulation: examples of Keimer (25-26) Ethics and morality as defined by what is practical and beneficial (moral utilitarian): i.e.: 25 & 37 Importance of appearance: page 46 (conspicuous “visible” labor), 40

8 Narrative Tensions and Contradictions: Franklin—the man versus the myth Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.) ―Whitman celebrating the boundless possibilities of the adventurous American self.

9 Franklin either has a sense of humor about his own contradictions or is oblivious… Franklin’s vanity and Franklin’s humility, pages 7 & 59 Franklin’s public self (appearance) and Franklin’s private self (reality), page 12 Franklin’s “intrigues with low women” (44) contradict his list of virtues, esp. Temperance and Chastity. Franklin the rebel (rebelling against authority) and Franklin the model to be emulated (becoming the authority without inciting rebellion in others)

10 Sign for Analysis: The Franklinian Dream as a cultural phenomenon


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