EVERY EVENING, tradition has it, the five daughters of the bishop of St. Asaph, five lively girls ranging in age from eleven to twenty-three, gathered with their parents to listen to the pages the family guest had written during the day. The setting was the tiny village of Twyford in the English countryside near Southampton. The time was August 1771. The girls' father was Jonathan Shipley, a liberal, a supporter of the cause of those restless colonies across the ocean, their mother a wealthy aristocrat, former maid of honor to the queen. The guest was a portly gentleman of sixty-five, a grandfatherly type somewhat given to gout, the American Doctor Franklin. The scientific pursuits that had brought him world renown along with his honorary degrees had been relegated to the wings for many years, and politics now held center stage in his life. No longer a universally beloved and respected figure, he was deeply embroiled in controversy, and after seven years away from home, the mission that had brought him to London seemed further from completion than ever.
At Twyford, however, during those enchanted summer weeks, politics was forgotten. The smoky, sooty air of London was left behind. So were the shrillness of pamphlets, the humiliating hours of waiting in antechambers, the snubbings of arrogant peers, the pressures from the dissatisfied provinces back home. What the guest was writing in a room that would be revered as "DoctorFranklin's room" had nothing to do with electricity or taxation. He was writing the story of the poor, lean, tough boy he had once been. A crafty, resourceful, and immensely determined boy who had made many mistakes on his way to the top, but repaired them more or less as he went and above all managed to learn from them. He had had to fight for every advantage, ruthlessly at times, but had never deviated from the central credo at the core of his being: Nobody was going to push him or his countrymen around.
Thus, in that serene interlude, was begun Franklin's most influential work, his fairest title to literary fame, the Autobiography.
Why does a man write the story of his life?
Out of vanity, of course. Franklin made no bones about that: "Most People dislike Vanity in others whatever Share they have of it them-