The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

VI. Franklin.

§ 3. His First Writings.

Franklin found the right avenue for a person of his “bookish inclination” when his brother James, returning from England in 1717 with a press and letters, set up in Boston as a printer, and proceeded to the publication of The Boston Gazette, 1719, and The New England Courant, 1721. Benjamin, aged twelve, became his apprentice. It can hardly be too much emphasized that this was really an inspiring “job”. It made him stand at a very early age full in the wind of local political and theological controversy. If forced him to use all his childish stock of learning and daily stimulated him to new acquisitions. It put him in touch with other persons, young and old, of bookish inclination. They lent him books which kindled his poetic fancy to the pitch of composing occasional ballads in the Grub Street style, which his brother printed, and had him hawk about town. His father discountenanced these effusions, declaring that “verse-makers were generally beggars”; but coming upon his son’s private experiments in prose, he applied the right incentive by pointing out where the work “fell short in elegance of expression, in method, and in perspicuity.” “About this time,” says Franklin in a familiar paragraph, “I met with an odd volume of the Spectator.” Anticipating Dr. Johnson’s advice by half a century, he gave his days and nights to painstaking study and imitation of Addison till he had mastered that style—“familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious”—which several generations of English essayists have sought to attain. All the world has heard how Franklin’s career as a writer began with an anonymous contribution stealthily slipped under the door of his brother’s printing-house at night, and in the morning approved for publication by his brother’s circle of “writing friends.” Professor Smyth 1  inclined to identify this contribution with the first of fourteen humorous papers with Latin mottoes signed “Silence Dogood,” which appeared fortnightly in The New England Courant from March to October, 1722. In this year Benjamin was in charge of the Courant during his brother’s imprisonment for printing matter offensive to the Assembly; and when, on repetition of the offence, the master was forbidden to publish his journal, it was continued in the name of the apprentice. In this situation James became jealous and overbearing, and Benjamin became insubordinate. When it grew evident that there was not room enough in Boston for them both, the younger brother left his indentures behind, and in 1723 made his memorable flight to Philadelphia.   4

Note 1The Writings of Benjamin Franklin. Collected and edited by Albert Henry Smyth. New York, 1907. Vol. II, p. I. The Dogood Papers were claimed by Franklin in the first draft of his Autobiography, and they have been long accredited to him; but they were first included in his collected works by Professor Smyth. [ back ]