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Boggs: Advice From Ben

Ben Franklin wrote many things - including those wonderfully funny and memorable sayings he published in Poor Richard’s Almanac. He wrote scientific pamphlets documenting his experiments and inventions – as well as a book we now refer to as his Memoir or Autobiography. That’s the one I think about now – because in that work, Franklin talks about the way in which he built his life, and gives us instructions for how we can do the same.The book was first published under the title “memoir” in an unauthorized French translation. It referred to Franklin as the “père de liberté,” the father of liberty, at the time of the French revolution when that country re-invented itself.

Franklin himself probably never heard the word “autobiography,” which came into use around the time of his death. But he did invent that kind of writing. Like today’s autobiographies, the book tells the story of Franklin growing up and – as he writes elsewhere – becoming “healthy, wealthy and wise.” And the book doesn’t just describe Franklin, it offers advice to his readers - those generations that came after the so-called founding fathers.

Franklin wrote the book in the form of a “Dear Son” letter of advice – ostensibly to his son William. But Franklin fell out with William over the revolution, and the way he addresses this “dear son” as a young man is strange – especially considering that by then William was in his forties, himself a renowned scientist, and governor of New Jersey.

So the “dear son” is also more broadly a younger generation of Americans. And the book was very popular in the early years of the republic that Franklin helped found; it was read widely and fondly by a whole generation of the sons of the founding fathers.

Franklin’s book is timely for his dedication to self-betterment. Not only was he first to explore American autobiography as a new form of writing, but he also contributed to our ongoing obsession with self-help books and good resolutions! And Franklin is always humorous, documenting success as well as failure.

I’ll try to heed Ben’s sage advice and remember that success would be nice, but even if we don’t succeed in becoming better versions of ourselves, it’s worth trying, and maintaining a sense of humor along the way.