“Tracing the pattern among the tangled threads”: The composition and publication history of “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin”
In his 1868 edition of [The] Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, John Bigelow justifies his “adding another to the already numberless editions of Dr. Franklin's Autobiography .” Expressed over 75 years after the first edition, Bigelow summarizes and anticipates the plight of Franklin's work. The Bigelow edition superceded that edition (1818) of Franklin's grandson William Temple Franklin, who was thought to have published “the” authoritative edition. Yet both Temple's and Bigelow's editions took great liberties with the punctuation, capitalization, and diction of Franklin's writing to such an extreme that many critics believe the twenty-first century still has not produced a completely authoritative text of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.
This dissertation examines for the first time the two-hundred plus years of Franklin's Autobiography and its “numberless editions,” printings, and reissues. Introductions, footnotes, and editor-added biographical continuations reflected as much culture to the Franklin writing as the work itself; for example, extraneous text might explain contemporary attitudes toward the Founding Fathers or mark pivotal-year anniversary celebrations of Franklin's birth and death. Despite its fragmentation (written during four distinct time periods and translated into numerous languages), Franklin's work also has been reprinted and revised specifically for the younger generation of readers. Illustrations and sketches as well as slightly altered texts reflect a particular attitude toward the work and its suitability for schools. Furthering its already broad audience, Franklin's Autobiography has been reprinted into hundreds of languages throughout the world. In many cases, Franklin's story became the first American work to be published in a given country. Additionally, the Autobiography has appeared in alternative formats, such as cassette and Braille versions as well as Internet based electronic texts.
The numerous arenas into which Franklin's Autobiography has been issued has enabled practically any reader from any country to read some version or format of Franklin's life story. The dissertation stresses the idea that because no one authoritative edition exists, the situation allows editors the flexibility of altering the text and creating formats, enabling anyone the capability of reading a version of Franklin's—and perhaps America's—greatest work.
0323: American studies
0337: American history