Self-Help and Popular Religion in Early American Culture: An Interpretive Guide

By Roy M. Anker | Go to book overview

Chapter 4 Benjamin Franklin, Cotton Mather, and Individualism

Few figures in American history have carried so much mythic weight, so many dimensions and overtones, so much controversy as Benjamin Franklin -- diplomat, politician, businessman, scientist, philosopher, inventor, public servant, author, and, in all these accomplishments, self-made man par excellence. Indeed, the conjunction of these feats put Franklin in a unique category in American history, a niche occupied by Franklin alone. The uniqueness of that niche is partly indicated in the lasting popularity of his books. While no remotely precise sales figures are available, the consistent production over the centuries of Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac, The Way to Wealth, and the Autobiography very probably makes him the bestselling author in American history (if this is not true for all genres, it surely applies to the sales of nonfiction). If Franklin's publishing success has been dwarfed by the prolific sales of contemporary romance writer Barbara Cartland or, to cite a latter-day self-help proponent, Norman Vincent Peale, neither of these popular authors nor any self-help proselytizer has paralleled Franklin's mammoth influence upon the length and breadth of American culture. While Franklin's own books have remained popular, the person and his life have in their own right over the centuries attracted enormous attention, sustaining the lively legend of Ben Franklin. Over 4,000 scholarly and popular articles on Franklin have appeared since 1721, a number probably unmatched by any other figure in American history (see Melvin Buxbaum's two-volume, annotated reference guide).

The mainspring and core of Franklin's perduring message as writer and cultural icon have been his counsel of self-help, and that advice appears even in his fabled kite-flying proof of the existence of electricity. In the ingenuity and bravado of his experiment Franklin witnesses to the heroic determina

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