Today I finished teaching Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. My goal in teaching this text is two-fold. First, I want my students to see Franklin as the embodiment of the Enlightenment in America. I want them to understand Franklin’s intellectual, cultural, and social world. Second, once they understand Franklin in historical context, I want them to think about the Autobiography as an “American document.” I ask them how Franklin’s values or philosophy of life intersect with American values.
My students have mixed emotions about Franklin. Many of them admire him. Some see him as inspirational. Others, however, are turned off by his haughtiness. Indeed, there is something narcissistic about writing an autobiography, especially when it is meant to instruct others.
In the Christian tradition, there is a long history of autobiography and spiritual testimony. The best example, of course, is Augustine’s Confessions. But as Jessica Crispin writes, today the genre of religious autobiography or spiritual memoir has grown out of control.