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The Model of American Identity

Updated: May 14, 2020

Throughout the centuries, blank pages, when combined with the right words, have possessed the ability to influence and shape the fabric of countries around the world. The Genre of American Literature has captivated audiences for centuries as it depicts the origins of America as a country through the various medium known as literature. The stories and narratives within American Literature act as gateways providing commentaries on the states of America at a given time in history. Much like the inner workings and culture of America that have changed over time, the same is true of the literary work composed in an attempt to reflect this evolutionary progress of the country. Be that as it may, in some cases, a particular literary work has the distinct ability to withstand the obstacle of time and become the model by which a nation chooses to define the concept that is American Identity. This idea is both expressed truthfully through The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin as well as the historical legacy imprinted upon this country by the person Benjamin Franklin himself. demonstrates that through the practice of hard work, sacrifice, and the ability to embrace one’s mistakes that the notion change is indeed an integral part of the American Identity. American Identity itself is rooted within the concept of the American Dream within which every individual strives to pull themselves up from the straps of their boots reinventing themselves. However, the American dream is never truly achievable without sacrifice and embracing the inevitability of change. The American colonies understood this when the revolution and formation of America were constructed. But the evolution of a country from a group of settlements does not come without mistakes. Benjamin Franklin penned the opening pages of his autobiography with this ideology, “When I reflect, as I frequently do, upon the felicity I have enjoyed, I sometimes say to myself, that was the offer made me, I would engage in running again, from beginning to end, the same career of life. All I would ask, should be the privilege of an author, to correct in a second edition, to correct some faults of the first. So would I if I might, besides correcting the faults, change some sinister accidents and events for others more favorable” (481). In the act of setting down his life story, Franklin aspired that his work would become an instrument of change among the diverse melting pot of citizens within society. Much like how Jacob wrestled blindly with God in the wilderness, America, in its early stages, fought with their Identity. As a separate entity apart from the mother country of England. The literary work set forth by Franklin mirrors that of the cosmic wrestling matches as the author describes his upbringing and eventual transition into becoming one of the most influential founding fathers of the American nation. The American Identity was not born overnight; rather, it gestated like that of an unborn child in the womb of a mother only to be taken after a long and strenuous labor. The legacy of the man that is Benjamin Franklin is much the same, built with a foundation based upon the principles of hard work, sacrifice, and no previous experience. The man himself is from a poor background, and possessing little to no finances was predominantly self-taught, as he details many times throughout his narrative. In fact, at one point, Franklin plainly states both about his thirst for knowledge and his financial position that “From a child, I was fond of reading, and all the little money that came into my hands was ever laid out in books” (487). The truth is Identity can only be found by those who choose to search for it, and while on that journey, one must make the conscious choice to take hold of their destiny. This is what Franklin did, the nation of America like that of an enthralled child looked to Franklin, their teacher, as an example of what it meant to come from a life that gave them nothing and rose from the ashes a phoenix reborn anew with little trace of what once was. However, as much as The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin exhibits the notion of change is an integral part of the American Identity. The text also proposes t a paradigm shift that happens within a society or an individual due to the direct change of circumstances affects the principle of the American Identity. In the second half of his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin is addressing the nation of America from a completely different platform because it was composed post-Revolutionary War in contrast to the previous portion having been written in 1771, before the outbreak of the American Revolution, serving as a predecessor to Franklin’s ascension resounding acclaim around the world. The Benjamin Franklin that existed in 1784 was different than the one found in 1771. However, he is still very much the confident man that finds his roots in humble beginnings; Franklin is now reaping the fruits of his labor as a respected member of the American government and a jack of all trades. As his station within the evolving American culture shifted from an aspiring success story to that of an American icon; It is safe to wonder whether Franklin sacrifices part of himself. All so that the facade of the “man who can call lightning down from the sky” among other characters given to him may be upheld. In part two of his autobiography, “the man with the kite,” enlightens the American people on his thoughts about topics such as virtue, having order in one’s life, and religious doctrine. During which, he writes the following on the merit of humility, “Imitate Jesus and Socrates” (535).He argued the individual persons of Jesus and Socrates contradict each other both in their religious practices as well as their physical nature. Because even though both are human, Jesus is also at the same time, inherently God, where Socrates was not. What does it suggest about the religious state of America during the time of Franklin if the country referred to Franklin as the “man who can call lightning down from the sky,” which is by doing so the American people imply that man can control the elements on a cosmic level which is ultimately impossible. The idea that an individual or a population of people could experience a drastic shift in the way in which their life is lived out and not be affected is improbable. A situational change such as the formation of a new country or the improvement of one’s social standings will undoubtedly come both with its own set of benefits as well as disadvantages. The twenty-first century America and the National Identity that exists today has been shaped and is a direct response to the ideologies and the understanding of nationalism when placed within the context of the American Identity. As time passes, the American Identity continues to be redefined as the culture of the country changes. The environment of the world is a living thing reacting to new concepts and discoveries based upon the knowledge of those that came before it. The Identity of America can be traced back through every previous generation, and when the entirety of its history is considered and placed alongside the cast list that is changing, only then can American Identity be defined. However, Identity is not made up solely of the best parts of history, nor is it only made up of the worst parts of something. Instead, it is a combination of all elements to make up one cohesive concept that, in the end, has the potential and ability to adapt to change as well as expand just as Genre of literature does so every single day since the day of its original birth. Benjamin Franklin once said, “time is money,” and while this is true, times can also change just as quickly as one form of currency can be exchanged for another while at the customs desk of an airport. Change is the never-ending force behind the Identity of the American people. Influenced by the past and those who never truly leave this world because of their work. Or, as F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby, expressed it in the closing lines of the novel, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”


Works Cited

“The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin .” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, by Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine, Norton, 2012.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. 1st Scribner pbk. Fiction ed. New York: Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1995. Print.

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