From their critical assessments on how to improve themselves and to the American public that they influenced by their writings, Jonathan Edwards and Benjamin Franklin illustrate American themes in their personal narratives that quintessentially make part of American Literature. Although they lived in different times during the early development of the United States of America and wrote for different purposes, they share common themes. Their influence by their environment, individualism, proposals for a better society, and events that affected their society generate from their writings. By analyzing Jonathan Edwards’ “Personal Narrative,” “Resolutions,” “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” and selections from Benjamin Franklin’s The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin found in The Heath Anthology of American Literature: Third Edition Volume One edited by Paul Lauter, the fundamental themes in American literature are evident and their individual ideas are distinctive.
These personal narratives reveal the influences of their environment that gave them epiphanies to their closer perfection of themselves. Jonathan Edwards’ “Personal Narrative” shows his journey towards a closer relationship to God. His family was followers of the Congregationalist Church, and from early childhood, he followed a Christian life (Lauter 569). In the beginning of his autobiography, “Personal Narrative,” he says “I had a variety of concerns and exercise about my soul from my childhood; but had two more remarkable seasons of
awakening, before I met with that change, by which I was brought to those new dispositions, and that new sense of things, that I have had” (Lauter 581). Edwards endures a “rite of passage,” which brings him closer to God. These epiphanies assisted on his assessment of becoming a better man in the eyes of God and minister to his community.
Benjamin Franklin did not hold his family beliefs of Christianity, but from his early environment, he drew his relationship to God as a Deist. Franklin believed there is a Supreme Being and it is our job to discover our own reality by reasoning. In his autobiography, he notes several epiphanies that changed his lifestyle. For example, he regretted his leaving Miss Read for England without pursuing their relationship further. He calls these regrets or wrongdoings “Erratum” (Lauter 788).
The spirituality of Franklin and Edwards is distinctive, and their writings reflect their experiences and growth of improvement. Franklin as a Deist felt that he created his destiny by the decisions he made. His autobiography illustrates his faults and accomplishments. This openness aims to the audience, the American, in order for them to reevaluate themselves and improve from their weaknesses. Franklin wanted Americans to become better Americans. With Edwards’ beliefs, he felt that god predestined every man, and only the “elect” entered in the afterlife to heaven. He focuses his writing to the Christian audience. His goal is to prepare them to become candidates to be “elect” and show how the “elect” can set an example for the rest of the congregation. These men felt the responsibility to live a better life and set the example for every man in their community.
As individuals, they constantly contemplate and self-evaluate there position in life and
community. In Early American Literature: A Collection of Critical Essays, the editor Michael T. Gilmore writes in the introduction, “[the Puritans] in their minds the Bible was the book of history, and typology revealed the developmental pattern of events by finding correspondences between the Old and New Testaments” (2). Edwards constantly places his life according to the bible. He believed like Winthrop, that his community needs to prepare and become “a city upon a hill” (Gilmore 2). Through his contemplation and goals seen in “Resolutions,” he constantly seeks to improve himself, so he can fulfill God’s plan for a new Holy Land, which is his congregation in New England. His sole concentration was interpreting the Bible and living by its words. He recorded his goals to improve himself and set an example to his community.
Benjamin Franklin seeks the same goals as an individual, but he desires to improve the “American man.” In Soundings: Some Early American Writers, Lewis Leary writes “Franklin was the true American…[he] constantly redefines himself…none better represented the simple, noble men…who lived close to nature faithful to her laws uncontaminated by artificialities of court or town” (9, 11). Franklin lists virtues that he intended his audience to try to follow when they chose to improve themselves. By explaining that no one can change overnight and work on one vice until successively conquered, such as chastity, every man can find self-improvement and further contribute to their community (Lauter 810-11).
With a diary and documenting each vice, Edward sought to overcome his sins, be closer to God, and teach from his experience the necessity to set the best example as one of the “elect.” With Franklin’s table of conquering vices, he wanted to be closer to being virtuous. These men documented their progress of their self-defined resolutions in hopes of their community to follow by their example. They desire to be influential by their own sacrifices and catch attention and esteem by their community.
Edwards’ and Franklin’s writings reflect the political and social separations in their society. While Franklin teaches through writing the events to all Americans for the need for a closer society after the Revolutionary War, Edward preaches to his congregation the need to bind together and seek salvation during the time when America redefined religion. In, “Sinners of an Angry God,” Edwards reacts with anger and fierceness to his congregation in the reaction to the “Great Awakening.” In his sermon to his church, Edwards’ theme is to plea the many not saved and doomed to damnation. He preaches, “now you have an extraordinary opportunity, a day wherein Christ has thrown the door of mercy wide open” (Lauter 602). He pleas to divert the influence of uncertified preachers and stay close to the community and save themselves. His idea of holding a community is by threat of damnation. As Ursula Brumm explains in her essay “Jonathan Edwards and Typology,” in Early American Literature: A Collection of Critical Essays, “Edwards took part heart and soul in the events of the Great Awakening. He regarded this movement with overwhelming expectations in the belief that it marked the beginning of the millennium” (71). Edwards felt that the temptations of Satan was the cause of this event, and by force in this sermon, he attempted to hold his congregation during this test by God who wanted to see who was faithful.
Franklin was not as forceful in his attempt to influence man to become more patriotic. He simply wanted some to follow the path that he paved. He discusses that the application of his list of virtues and how they make man a good citizen. He says “it’s every one’s interest to be virtuous, who wish’d to be happy even in this world” (Lauter 818). His aim is to show men, thatliterature, like his autobiography, helps men analyze their own errors and correct (Leary 15). The theme of “rags to riches” dominates Franklin autobiography and it is a common theme used by many American writers. At the time after America won its independence, the nation struggled for the identification of a model citizen. Franklin’s true account of his success from moving from the lower class to the upper class influenced many of his fellow American in a needful time.
Franklin and Edwards were innovators to their communities when people needed a model to live their lives. By their constant self-evaluation, self-improvement, publication of their personal narratives, and their acknowledgement of a need to bind society together, they represent American Literature.
Brumm, Ursula. “Jonathan Edwards and Typology.” Early American Literature: A Collection of
Critical Essays. Ed. Michael T. Gilmore. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1980.
Lauter, Paul., ed. The Heath Anthology of American Literature. 3rd ed. Vol. 1. New York:
Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.