Our founding fathers are rarely praised as fountains of mirth. As a child, I read and reread The Wit and Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln until the book disintegrated. Can you imagine such a volume for Washington or any of his confreres? Benjamin Franklin is the exception. He is remembered as the affable conversationalist and witty writer who charmed high and low in both the New World and the Old. Though he carefully nurtured his image as a sober and industrious businessman, public figure, and late-blooming scientist, he could poke fun at himself, describing, for example, his escape from Boston and arrival in Philadelphia, where he walked the streets munching on the three loaves of bread he had bought for a pittance. In Franklin, we find a polished and effective author of satire, a man partial to a good hoax, a man who gained international renown for flying kites in his spare time.
Franklin, I eventually discovered, has his posthumous detractors. Max Weber makes the hero of Franklin’s Autobiography the prototype of the Protestant ethic that provided the spirit of capitalism. D. H. Lawrence visits vituperation on the “snuff-colored” Philadelphia sage. His Franklin exemplifies shrewd bourgeois acquisitiveness. In his Autobiography, Franklin describes the life plan he adopted for a time. It involves a list of twelve virtues, from temperance (“Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation”) to chastity (“Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation”)—to which he later adds humility. He focuses on each one in turn according to a set schedule. Franklin’s resolutions, says Lawrence, are the diametrical opposites of the passions Lawrence commended as life-giving.
These animadversions upon Franklin’s practical plan of life interested me, but only up to a point. I never felt attracted to Franklin’s worldly utilitarianism or to Lawrence’s compulsive inversion of it. Nor was I shocked to learn from the historians that, but for good luck, Franklin’s extracurricular venery might have impaired his peace and harmed more than one woman’s reputation. No, I never looked to him for sanctity. Rereading Lawrence, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that he admires Benjamin, among other things, for his “common sense humor.”
In the humor department, Mark Twain ranks many rungs higher than Lawrence, who was given to a bohemian earnestness as pressing as the bourgeois ethic he rejected. Why did Twain, too, find Franklin exasperating? He published “The Late Benjamin Franklin” in 1870. Here, he severely assaults Franklin’s Autobiography on behalf of a small boy. Twain’s Franklin, the apostle of industriousness, proposes himself “for the emulation of boys forever—boys who might otherwise have been happy.” The singular emphasis on usefulness bleaches the fun out of everything. Sure, Franklin had his fun, but “in order to get a chance to fly his kite on Sunday, he used to hang a key on the string and let on to be fishing for lightning.” If the boy “buys two cents’ worth of peanuts, his father says, ‘Remember what Franklin has said, my son— “A groat a day’s a penny a year”’; and the comfort is all gone out of those peanuts.”
Mark Twain gave Franklin credit for his talent to amuse, but rapped his knuckles for subordinating it to a sober message of self-improvement and a self-satisfied self-image. Was he fair to Franklin? We need to allow for the typical and much-loved Mark Twain hyperbole. Furthermore, Twain was attacking the Franklin of the American imagination more than the man himself. He was indeed proposed to nineteenth-century boys as a monument of efficiency, rectitude, and shrewd gregariousness. Franklin contributed to this role especially in the Autobiography and in the maxims of Poor Richard Saunders, where he played the character of the striving man on his way to success. Biographers of the young Sam Clemens show that he suffered from having Franklin foisted on him as a paragon of civilized conduct. Alongside these explanations, I think there is something deeper. Certain aspects of Franklin’s kind of humor are quite different from the laughter that allows us to enjoy the peanut, rather than thinking always about returns on investments.
I’d like to take a roundabout path to this difference, one that runs through the literature of piety in Jewish Eastern Europe. Mendel Lefin was an “enlightened” Hebrew writer (a “maskil”) early in the nineteenth century. He was exposed to Franklin’s Autobiography in some form and was much taken by the very calendar of virtues that Lawrence detested and Twain scorned. He reproduced it, judiciously amended, in his own work (today visited only by specialists). Lefin influenced the Mussar movement, a rigorous moralistic program launched in the late nineteenth century by R. Israel Salanter. In particular, Salanter and other Mussar followers picked up Franklin’s idea of the virtue catalogue, without troubling over its provenance. Some Mussar practices and vocabulary survive, in slightly domesticated and attenuated form, in most contemporary Lithuanian-style yeshivot.
Neither Lawrence nor Twain would have been amused by the indirect influence of Franklin on a particular strain of Jewish life. Yet long before I studied the history and works of the Mussar movement, when I barely knew the names of a couple of its most prominent pioneers, I came across an early twentieth-century anthology of Jewish Eastern European humor. There, I found an anecdote about a cash-strapped rabbi’s visit to a wealthy merchant. The rabbi expected financial support proportionate to his reputed enthusiasm for Mussar. To his overtures, the tycoon with crestfallen face lamented: “If only you had come last month: That’s when I was working on my virtue of generosity!”
The idea of budgeting one’s time so as to “work” on a single character trait in isolation from others strikes me as overly mechanical to the point of being counterproductive, as the joke about the rabbi and the merchant suggests. Of course, Franklin was not insensitive to the potential absurdity of his method. Indeed, if we read Franklin in light of the humorous anecdote about Mussar methods, we detect gentle intimations of self-deprecation, even of satire, in Franklin’s account of his own experiment in rigorous character-building, its challenges and pitfalls, its successes and limitations—just as there is a more explicit satire in his accounts of his earlier forays into vegetarianism and teetotalism. That is one element in Franklin’s genius. I first spied the Mussar calendar from afar, so to speak: I knew the joke that was a send-up before meeting the pietism it parodied. With Franklin, I can get the seriousness and the humor together, which is fitting, since the moral instruction we need invariably calls for a bit of deflationary humor to preserve it from smugness.
Was Twain fair to Franklin? He was right that Franklin and those who placed him on his posthumous pedestal cared little for preserving the comfort in the peanut for the boy whose happiness depended on it. But Twain himself, whose prose can induce grown men to burst into laughter, endures because, at his best (think of Huckleberry Finn), he conjures a world that is funny and sad and deeply discomforting in ways that offer profound moral instruction. Franklin may not have reached the same elevated hilarity or the same depths of reflection. Still, he deserves as respectable a niche in American letters and humor as in our science and statesmanship.
Shalom Carmy teaches Jewish studies and philosophy at Yeshiva University and is editor emeritus of Tradition.