The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.
§ 16. His Style
Of Franklin’s style the highest praise is to declare that it reveals the mental and moral qualities of the man himself. It is the flexible style of a writer who has learned the craft of expression by studying and imitating the virtues of many masters: the playful charm of Addison, the trenchancy of Swift, the concreteness of Defoe, the urbanity of Shaftesbury, the homely directness of Bunyan’s dialogue, the unadorned vigour of Tillotson, and the epigrammatic force of Pope. His mature manner, however, is imitative of nothing but the thoroughly disciplined movement of a versatile mind which has never known a moment of languor or a moment of uncontrollable excitement. Next to his omnipresent vitality, his most notable characteristic is the clearness which results from a complete preliminary vision of what is to be said, and which in a young hand demands deliberate preconsideration. To Franklin, the ordering of his matter must have become eventually a light task as, with incessant passing to and fro in his experience and with the daily habit of epistolary communication, he grew as familiar with his intellectual terrain as an old field marshal with the map of Europe. For the writing of his later years is marked not merely by clearness and force but also by the sovereign ease of a man who has long understood the interrelations of his ideas and has ceased to make revolutionary discoveries in any portion of his own nature. His occasional wrath does not fluster him but rather intensifies his lucidity, clarifies his logic, and brightens the ironical smile which accompanies the thrust of his wit. The “decent plainness and manly freedom” of his ordinary tone—notes which he admired in the writings of his maternal grandfather Peter Folger—rise in parts of his official correspondence to a severity of decorum; for there is a trace of the senatorial in the man, the dignity of antique Rome. He is seldom too hurried, even in a private letter, to gratify the ear by the turning and cadence of sentence and phrase; and one feels that the harmony of his periods is the right and predestined vesture of his essential blandness and suavity of temper. His stylistic drapery, however, is never so smoothed and adjusted as to obscure the sinewy vigour of his thought. His manner is steadily in the service of his matter. He is adequate, not copious; for his moral “frugality and industry” prompt him to eschew surplusage and to make his texture firm. His regard for purity of diction is classical; he avoids vulgarity; he despises the jargon of scientific pedants; but like Montaigne he loves frank and masculine speech, and he likes to enrich the language of the well bred by discreet drafts upon the burry, homely, sententious, proverbial language of the people. Like Lord Bacon and like many other grave men among his fellow-countrymen, he found it difficult to avoid an opportunity for a jest even when the occasion was unpropitious; and he never sat below the Attic salt. When his fortune was made, he put by the pewter spoon and bowl of his apprenticeship; his biographers remind us that he kept a well stocked cellar at Passy and enjoyed the distinction of suffering from the gout. With affluence and years he acquired a “palate,” and gave a little play to the long repressed tastes of an Epicurean whom early destiny had cast upon a rock-bound coast. The literary expression of his autumnal festivity is to be found in the bagatelles. The Ephemera proves that this great eighteenth-century rationalist had a fancy. It is no relative, indeed, of that romantic spirit which pipes to the whistling winds on the enchanted greens of Shakespeare. It is rather the classic Muse of eighteenth-century art which summons the rosy Loves and Desires to sport among the courtiers and philosophers and the wasp-waisted ladies in a fête champêtre or an Embarkment for Cythera of Watteau. The tallow chandler’s son who enters on the cycle of his development by cultivating thrift with Defoe, continues it by cultivating tolerance and philanthropy with Voltaire, and completes it with Lord Chesterfield by cultivating “the graces.”