MAKE A NAME FOR YOURSELF
Not by chance or fate but by his own design, Ben Franklin’s name is everywhere. On schools, avenues, ships, towns, companies, hundred-dollar bills—you name it, there’s Ben’s name. Such renown was the Founding Father’s intent, more for legacy than for vanity, less to rest on laurels than to inspire future achievements.
“If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing.”1
Franklin was 32 years old when he quoted this phrase in the 1738 print of Poor Richard’s Almanac, his best-selling yearly publication containing weather, calendars, and proverbial advice to live one’s best life: healthy, wealthy, and wise. By this time, Ben had already made a name for himself, founding the Junto, or Leather Apron Club, in 1727, and becoming publisher of The Pennsylvania Gazette in 1729.
The family name itself represented a legacy of freedom. As Franklin’s biographer Walter Isaacson describes his ancestors, “Proud but without great pretension, assertive of their rights as members of an independent middle class, these freeholders came to be known as franklins, from the Middle English word ‘frankeleyn,’ meaning freeman.”2
It’s ironic that Franklin uses a pseudonym, Richard Saunders, to share advice on making a name for oneself.3 But maybe such creative self-reinvention is exactly how to make a name people will remember.
According to Thomas Fuller’s version of the quote (Franklin’s likely source), “If thou wouldest win Immortality of Name, either do things worth the writing, or write things worth the reading.”4 Franklin’s folksy twist replaces the religious vibe of immortality with an all-American entrepreneurial instinct to build a memorable reputation and legacy.
Three decades would pass before Franklin started writing his memoirs, yet in the meantime he was making a name for himself by writing things worth reading and doing things worth writing.
By the time Franklin was 42 years old in 1748, his printing business had made him rich enough to retire. Now “master of [his] own time,” he was free to pursue public service and Enlightenment; to unite the colonies, experiment with electricity, and flirt with French ladies, to name a few of his post-retirement exploits. He also purchased enslaved persons, though eventually he subscribed to abolition.5
All the while, in real time, he was writing his life story, and the collective story of American life, through letters, papers, and texts such as Experiments and Observations on Electricity (1751), “Plan of Union” (1754), The Way to Wealth (1758)—oh, and the “Declaration of Independence” (1776).
Franklin started seriously writing the Autobiography in 1771, put it on ice during the American Revolution, then picked it up in 1784. Published in 1794, Franklin’s Autobiography made him “the hero of countless…self-made businessmen” and “came to personify the American dream.”6
According to the Library of Congress, the Autobiography “maps out a strategy for self-made success.” It was created “over the course of several decades and never completed.”7 Autobiography is a lifelong act, never complete, always ongoing. This messy resemblance to life is not a mistake but a virtue that makes Franklin’s Autobiography worth reading.
PUT YOUR LIFE INTO WRITING
In the Autobiography, Franklin tells his son that he wouldn’t mind repeating his life over again, if only he had “the advantages authors have in a second edition to correct some faults of the first.” If such a second chance is impossible, he writes, “the next thing most like living one’s life over again seems to be a recollection of that life, and to make that recollection as durable as possible by putting it down in writing.”8
Franklin’s success justified committing his life to writing. “Having emerged from the poverty and obscurity in which I was born and bred, to a state of affluence and some degree of reputation in the world,” Franklin thought “posterity may like to know” about his virtues and experiences, “as they may find some of them suitable to their own situations, and therefore fit to be imitated.”9
However, Franklin’s life writing was always proactive and future-facing, never just a retrospective recollection of past deeds but a creative act that made his life successful from the start. As he wrote in the Autobiography, “writing has been of great use to me in the course of my life, and was a principal means of my advancement.”10
Gordon S. Wood remarks that “Franklin realized, as all the Founders did, that writing competently was such a rare talent…that anyone who could do it well immediately attracted attention.”11 From his youth as a printer’s apprentice to his career as a successful publisher and prolific author, Franklin used words not to describe action but to take it.
Like the telling of Franklin’s life story, the Declaration of Independence transcends words to become action. It creates a new reality as much as it retells an existing tale, proving that one can “write things worth reading” and “do things worth writing” at the same time.
Half a century earlier, the 16-year-old Benjamin Franklin posed as a widow named Silence Dogood and wrote a fictional autobiography “To the Author of the New-England Courant” on April 2, 1722. Having been rejected by publishers, Franklin’s reason for telling the widow’s life story is that “People, now a days, are unwilling either to commend or dispraise what they read” unless they know “who or what the Author of it is, whether he be poor or rich, old or young,” educated or not.12
So Franklin, impersonating the widow Silence, starts “with a short Account of my past Life and present Condition” for the reader to “judge whether” Franklin’s words “are worth his reading.”13 In the 21st century context of fake news and deep fakes, Franklin’s critique of authorship is questionable. Shouldn’t we care who the author is before we judge whether something is worth reading?
Still, we can subscribe to Franklin’s founding intentions: to make a name for oneself, to be self-made, to declare independence from the tyranny of one’s past circumstances and present situation. Today, entrepreneurs are democratizing life writing, making it easier than ever to write things worth reading while doing things worth writing.
Aaron Lee Greenberg, PhD is co-founder of Biograph and lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Aaron’s publications include “Reviving Vitalism in King Lear” and Recorded Time: How to Write the Future.