The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.
§ 4. Franklin as Journalist
Benjamin Franklin’s later journalism amply fulfilled the promise contained in the Silence Dogood papers. When he finally established himself in Philadelphia, shortly before 1730, the town boasted two wretched little news sheets, Andrew Bradford’s American Mercury, and Keimer’s Universal Instructor in all Arts and Sciences, and Pennsylvania Gazette. This instruction in all arts and sciences consisted of weekly extracts from Chambers’s Universal Dictionary, actually commencing with A, and going steadily on towards Z, followed by instalments of Defoe’s Religious Courtship, called by the editor “a scarce and delightful piece of History.” Franklin quickly did away with all this when he took over the Instructor, and made it The Pennsylvania Gazette. The Gazette soon became Franklin’s characteristic organ, which he freely used for satire, for the play of his wit, even for sheer excess of mischief or of fun.
From the first he had a way of adapting his models to his own uses. The series of essays called The Busy-Body, which he wrote for Bradford’s American Mercury in 1729, followed the general Addisonian form, modified already to suit homelier conditions. The thrifty Patience, in her busy little shop, complaining of the useless visitors who waste her valuable time, is related to the ladies who address Mr. Spectator. The Busy-Body himself is a true Censor Morum, as Isaac Bickerstaff had been in the Tatler. And a number of the fictitious characters, Ridentius, Eugenius, Cato, and Cretico, represent traditional eighteenth-century classicism. Even this Franklin could use for contemporary satire, since Cretico, the “sowre Philosopher,” is evidently a portrait of Franklin’s rival, Samuel Keimer.
As time went on, Franklin depended less on his literary conventions, and more on his own native humour. In this there is a new spirit,—not suggested to him by the fine breeding of Addison, or the bitter irony of Swift, or the stinging completeness of Pope. The brilliant little pieces Franklin wrote for his Pennsylvania Gazette have an imperishable place in American literature. It is none the less true that they belong to colonial journalism.
The Pennsylvania Gazette, like most other newspapers of the period was often poorly printed. Franklin was busy with a hundred matters outside of his printing office, and never seriously attempted to raise the standards of his trade. Nor did he ever properly edit or collate the chance medley of stale items which passed for news in the Gazette. His influence on the practical side of journalism was very small. On the other hand, his advertisements of books show his very great interest in popularizing secular literature. Undoubtedly his paper contributed to the broader culture which distinguished Pennsylvania from her neighbours before the Revolution. Starting with the custom of importing a stray volume or two along with stationer’s supplies, Franklin gradually developed a book shop in his printing office. There was nothing unusual in this fact, by itself. His rival, Andrew Bradford, and many other printers in the colonies had odd collections for sale. But while Bradford was advertising the Catechistical Guide to Sinners, or The Plain Man’s Path-way to Heaven, along with an occasional Spectator, Franklin’s importations, listed in the Gazette for sale, included works of Bacon, Dryden, Locke, Milton, Otway, Pope, Prior, Swift, Rowe, Defoe, Addison, Steele, Arbuthnot, Congreve, Rabelais, Seneca, Ovid, and various novels, all before 1740. The first catalogue of his Library Company shows substantially the same list, with the addition of Don Quixote, and the works of Shaftesbury, of Gay, of Spenser, and of Voltaire. These latter were probably for sale in the printing office as well.