The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin/Section Eight
There was another Bookish Lad in the Town, John Collins by Name, with whom I was intimately acquainted. We sometimes disputed, and very fond we were of Argument, & very desirous of confuting one another. Which disputatious Turn, by the way, is apt to become a very bad Habit, making People often extremely disagreeable in Company, by the Contradiction that is necessary to bring it into Practice, & thence, besides souring & spoiling the Conversation, is productive of Disgusts & perhaps Enmities where you may have occasion for Friendship. I had caught it by reading my Father’s Books of Dispute about Religion. Persons of good Sense, I have since observ’d, seldom fall into it, except Lawyers, University Men, and Men of all Sorts that have been bred at Edinburgh. A Question was once somehow or other started between Collins & me, of the Propriety of educating the Female Sex in Learning, & their Abilities for Study. He was of Opinion that it was improper, & that they were naturally unequal to it. I took the contrary Side, perhaps a little for Dispute sake. He was naturally more eloquent, had a ready Plenty of Words, and sometimes as I thought bore me down more by his Fluency than by the Strength of his Reasons. As we parted without settling the Point, & were not to see one another again for some time, I sat down to put my Arguments in Writing, which I copied fair & sent to him. He answer’d & I reply’d. Three or four Letters of a Side had pass’d, when my Father happen’d to find my Papers, and read them. Without entering into the Discussion, he took occasion to talk to me about the Manner of my Writing, observ’d that tho’ I had the Advantage of my Antagonist in correct Spelling & pointing (which I ow’d to the Printinghouse) I fell far short in elegance of Expression, in Method and in Perspicuity, of which he convinc’d me by several Instances. I saw the Justice of his Remarks, & thence grew more attentive to the Manner in Writing, and determin’d to endeavor at Improvement.
About this time I met with an odd Volume of the Spectator. It was the third. I had never before seen any of them. I bought it, read it over and over, and was much delighted with it. I thought the Writing excellent, & wish’d if possible to imitate it. With that View, I took some of the Papers, & making short Hints of the Sentiment in each Sentence, laid them by a few Days, and then without looking at the Book, try’d to complete the Papers again, by expressing each hinted Sentiment at length & as fully as it had been express’d before, in any suitable Words, that should come to hand.
Then I compar’d my Spectator with the Original, discover’d some of my Faults & corrected them. But I found I wanted a Stock of Words or a Readiness in recollecting & using them, which I thought I should have acquir’d before that time, if I had gone on making Verses, since the continual Occasion for Words of the same Import but of different Length, to suit the Measure, or of different Sound for the Rhyme, would have laid me under a constant Necessity of searching for Variety, and also have tended to fixthat Variety in my Mind, & make me Master of it. Therefore I took some of the Tales & turn’d them into Verse: And after a time, when I had pretty well forgotten the Prose, turn’d them back again. I also sometimes jumbled my Collections of Hints into Confusion, and after some Weeks, endeavor’d to reduce them into the best Order, before I began to form the full Sentences & complete the Paper. This was to teach me Method in the Arrangement of Thoughts. By comparing my work afterwards with the original, I discovere’d many faults and amended them; but I sometimes had the Pleasure of Fancying that in certain Particulars of small Import, I had been lucky enough to improve the Method or the Language and this encourag’d me to think I might possibly in time come to be a tolerable English Writer, of which I was extremely ambitious.
My Time for these Exercises & for Reading, was at Night, after Work or before Work began in the Morning; or on Sundays, when I contrived to be in the Printinghouse alone, evading as much as I could the common Attendance on public Worship, which my Father used to exact of me when I was under his Care: And which indeed I still thought a Duty; tho’ I could not, as it seemed to me, afford the Time to practise it.