Biography Discussion Questions
- For the person who chose this book: What made you want to read it? What made you suggest it to the group for discussion? Did it live up to your expectations? Why or why not?
- What did you know about the subject prior to reading this book? Did you learn anything new about this person? If you knew of the subject before, did anything you read change your opinion?
- What is the subject's most admirable quality? Is this someone you would want to know or have known?
- What did you find to be the most interesting events in this book? What, if anything, surprised you?
- If this person impacted history, discuss what may have been different without his or her presence.
- What did you learn about the time period in which the book is set that you did not previously know? Discuss the time period in history that each person in the group enjoys reading about most, and why.
- Has reading this book inspired you to do further research on the subject and the time period discussed?
- Compare this book to others your group has read. Is it similar to any of them? Did you like it more or less than other books you've read? What do you think will be your lasting impression of the book as a whole? How about the subject specifically?
- What did you like or dislike about the book that hasn't been discussed already? Were you glad you read this book? Would you recommend it to a friend? Do you want to read more works by this author or more about the book's subject?
What are Franklin's views on religion and why do they matter to his narrative?
There is a common assumption that the Founding Fathers were avowedly Christian; however, Franklin emphatically lays that to rest. He says that no sect had a hold on him and that he was, if anything, a Deist. He did not attend church but publicly supported freedom of worship for others. He had no interest in destroying a man's faith but was keen on routing out hypocrisy or manipulation. He had friends who were ministers but engaged in lively debates with them, always promoting the secular and the sublunary. Franklin values reason above faith, and is happy to laud a sect–the Dunkers–when they espouse that worldview. He sees the merits in the morality promulgated by religious sects, but knows that one can accomplish the same sort of moral perfection from a secular perspective. Overall, Franklin is rooted in the terrestrial world. He is all about success, money, civic pride, reputation, and contentment–not the afterlife.
Why does Franklin leave out the events of the Revolution, and what impact does this have on his overall story?
It may surprise some readers that there is no mention of the Continental Congress, the Declaration of Independence, the war itself, or peace. Franklin picks up his writing in 1784 after all of those events but says nothing about them. When he dies in 1790 his work is still unfinished and there is still no mention of such things. This may be for a few reasons. First, Franklin wanted to keep the focus on the formative events of his early life in order to show young men, the intended audience, how to perfect themselves and succeed. Second, he may value the accomplishments delineated here more than those during the war; after all, he was profoundly proud of what he accomplished in Philadelphia and in the realm of science. Third, this may have been a calculated act of humility. All Americans knew him and knew what he'd done during the 1760s and beyond; he may have intended not to tell this very familiar tale.
Is there a "real" Franklin? Can we determine what Franklin was really like from the Autobiography? Why or why not?
This is an interesting question because, while there was actually one living, breathing, thinking Franklin who walked the earth, the Autobipgraphy gives us multiple Franklins. There is the scrappy youth, the hardworking young man who flirts with dissolution, the stable family man, the politician, the philosopher, the scientist, the statesman; there is the ironic Franklin, the cerebral Franklin, and the practical Franklin. The Franklin in the latter half of the work is universalized, made into a symbolic figure worthy of emulation and admiration. He barely seems like a "real" person in the book: instead he is the ideal, self-made American.
What role does Franklin's sociability play in the course of his life?
Franklin's sociability allowed him to move with ease in all social milieux, from meetings with governors and kings to regiments of soldiers to the common people. While part of this was inherent in him, he also spent his life mastering the most effective ways to communicate. These tips would thus be useful for all readers, allowing them to embrace Franklin-style sociability. As critic Steven Forde writes, Franklin "portrays his sociability, like his reasonableness, as an acquisition or contrivance, rather than as something native to him." He reads Socrates and modifies his speaking style to bring about pleasure and understanding, not just rhetorical victory. This requires sublimating pride, however, and Franklin is open about the difficulties therein. He admits that at least the impression of humility might be sufficient. Overall, this style of sociability was perfect for the new democratic, egalitarian nation Franklin was trying to shape.
How do the tone and narrative form change from Part I to the other parts of the book?
Part I's tone is much more colloquial and ironic, the prose simpler. It is a more linear narrative, adhering to a classic autobiographical, bildungsroman format. The Franklin in that part is youthful and finding his footing in the world; he makes mistakes and assiduously works on himself. Parts II-IV feature slightly more stilted and formal prose, with the tone more removed. Franklin seems more formal, more universalized. He is a statesman now, one of the most important Americans in the new country. He knows what is at stake in his narrative and adjusts himself consciously and unconsciously in his writing to account for this fact.