The Life of Benjamin Franklin. Illustrated by Tales, Sketches, and Anecdotes. Adapted to the Use of Schools (Philadelphia: Thomas, Cowperthwait and Co., 1844). Frontispiece [Detail].
There was no such thing as Franklin’s “autobiography” until well into the nineteenth century. The word was not even coined until long after Franklin died, but more significantly, he wrote his autobiography at four different times in his life, and for many years only the first part circulated in print, in a version based on an unauthorized and unrevised copy of his manuscript. That first part went only up to his 25th year, so all Franklin’s early publishers thought of his memoir as a fragment that told a small part of the story, and they added to it a variety of letters and documents to complete the “Life.” Moreover, that unrevised copy of part one was first published in 1791 in Paris in a French translation, and the first English editions of 1793 were translations of the French translation. This text, incomplete and significantly different from what Franklin wrote, was the basis of innumerable cheap American and British editions throughout the nineteenth century, even after Franklin’s grandson finally brought out his own supposedly “authoritative” edition in 1818.
A page from Franklin’s own manuscript of his Letter to his Son (i.e., the “Autobiography”). Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery. Facsimile.
Franklin folded his paper vertically and wrote in only one column, leaving the other column free for later revisions and additions. For more than 60 years after Franklin’s death, this manuscript was in France.
Henry Stuber, “History of the Life and Character of Benjamin Franklin,” The Universal Asylum and Columbian Magazine (Philadelphia, May 1790).
Stuber’s third-person account of Benjamin Franklin’s life was based on an unrevised manuscript of only the first of the four parts of Franklin’s memoirs.
Benjamin Franklin, Mémoires de la Vie Privée de Benjamin Franklin Écrits par Lui-même, et Adressés à son Fils [trans. Jacques Gibelin] (Paris: Chez Buisson, 1791).
Franklin’s “autobiography” was first published in Paris in 1791 in a French translation. It consisted of only the first of the four parts that Franklin wrote.
Benjamin Franklin, The Private Life of the late Benjamin Franklin… Originally Written by Himself, and Now Translated from the French [trans. Alexander Stevens] (London: Printed for J. Parsons, 1793). (left image)
Benjamin Franklin, Works of the Late Doctor Benjamin Franklin (London: Printed for G. G. J. and J. Robinson, ). (right image)
The first English editions of the “autobiography” were two different translations of the 1791 French edition back into English. A translation of a translation of the first part of Franklin’s memoirs was the only version available in English before 1818.
Benjamin Franklin, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Benjamin Franklin. . . Now First Published from the Original MSS. (London: Printed for Henry Colburn, British and Foreign Public Library, 1818).
William Temple Franklin, Benjamin’s grandson, had been promising an edition since 1790, while trying unsuccessfully to block other editions. His edition was finally published in 1818.
Benjamin Franklin: his Autobiography (c.1848).
On the first page of this edition of the recently named “autobiography,” Franklin is depicted in the act of writing his letter to his son.
The Life of Benjamin Franklin. Illustrated by Tales, Sketches, and Anecdotes. Adapted to the Use of Schools (Philadelphia: Thomas, Cowperthwait and Co., 1844).
This children’s edition emphasizes both Franklin the scientist through the kite flying episode and Franklin the printer as a working artisan.
Child’s Life of Benjamin Franklin (Philadelphia and Baltimore: Fisher and Brother, ca. 1860).
This tiny children’s edition, mixing biography and autobiography, still follows one of the 1793 English translations of the 1791 French translation.