The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin/Section Eighteen
I believe I have omitted mentioning that in my first Voyage from Boston, being becalm’d off Block Island, our People set about catching Cod & haul’d up a great many. Hitherto I had stuck to my Resolution of not eating animal Food; and on this Occasion, I consider’d with my Master Tryon, the taking every Fish as a kind of unprovok’d Murder, since none of them had or ever could do us any Injury that might justify the Slaughter. All this seem’d very reasonable. But I had formerly been a great Lover of Fish, & when this came hot out of the Frying Pan, it smeled admirably well. I balanc’d some time between Principle & Inclination: till I recollected, that when the Fish were opened, I saw smaller Fish taken out of their Stomachs: Then thought I, if you eat one another, I don’t see why we mayn’t eat you. So I din’d upon Cod very heartily and continu’d to eat with other People, returning only now & then occasionally to a vegetable Diet. So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable Creature, since it enables one to find or make a Reason for every thing one has a mind to do.
Keimer & I liv’d on a pretty good familiar Footing & agreed tolerably well: for he suspected nothing of my Setting up. He retain’d a great deal of his old Enthusiasms, and lov’d Argumentation. We therefore had many Disputations. I used to work him so with my Socratic Method, and had trapann’d him so often by Questions apparently so distant from any Point we had in hand, and yet by degrees led to the Point, and brought him into Difficulties & Contradictions that at last he grew ridiculously cautious, and would hardly answer me the most common Question, without asking first, What do you intend to infer from that? However it gave him so high an Opinion of my Abilities in the Confuting Way, that he seriously propos’d my being his Colleague in a Project he had of setting up a new Sect. He was to preach the Doctrines, and I was to confound all Opponents. When he came to explain with me upon the Doctrines, I found several Conundrums which I objected to, unless I might have my Way a little too, and introduce some of mine. Keimer wore his Beard at full Length, because somewhere in the Mosaic Law it is said, thou shalt not mar the Corners of thy Beard. He likewise kept the seventh day Sabbath; and these two Points were Essentials with him. I dislik’d both, but agreed to admit them upon Condition of his adopting the Doctrine of using no animal Food. I doubt, says he, my Constitution will not bear that. I assur’d him it would, & that he would be the better for it. He was usually a great Glutton, and I promis’d myself some Diversion in half-starving him. He agreed to try the Practice if I would keep him Company. I did so and we held it for three Months. We had our Victuals dress’d and brought to us regularly by a Woman in the Neighborhood, who had from me a List of 40 Dishes to be prepar’d for us at different times, in all which there was neither Fish Flesh nor Fowl, and the whim suited me the better at this time from the Cheapness of it, not costing us above 18d Sterling each, per Week. I have since kept several Lents most strictly, Leaving the common Diet for that, and that for the common, abruptly, without the least Inconvenience: So that I think there is little in the Advice of making those Changes by easy Gradations. I went on pleasantly, but poor Keimer suffer’d grievously, tir’d of the Project, long’d for the Flesh Pots of Egypt, and order’d a roast Pig. He invited me & two Women Friends to dine with him, but it being brought too soon upon table, he could not resist the Temptation, and ate it all up before we came.
I had made some Courtship during this time to Miss Read. I had a great Respect & Affection for her, and had some Reason to believe she had the same for me: but as I was about to take a long Voyage, and we were both very young, only a little above 18, it was thought most prudent by her Mother to prevent our going too far at present, as a Marriage if it was to take place would be more convenient after my Return, when I should be as I expected set up in my Business. Perhaps too she thought my Expectations not so well founded as I imagined them to be.
My chief Acquaintances at this time were, Charles Osborne, Joseph Watson, & James Ralph; All Lovers of Reading. The two first were Clerks to an eminent Scrivener or Conveyancer in the Town, Charles Brockden; the other was Clerk to a Merchant. Watson was a pious sensible young Man, of great Integrity. The others rather more lax in their Principles of Religion, particularly Ralph, who as well as Collins had been unsettled by me, for which they both made me suffer. Osborne was sensible, candid, frank, sincere, and affectionate to his Friends; but in literary Matters too fond of Criticising. Ralph, was ingenious, genteel in his Manners, & extremely eloquent; I think I never knew a prettier Talker. Both of them great Admirers of Poetry, and began to try their Hands in little Pieces. Many pleasant Walks we four had together on Sundays into the Woods near Schuylkill, where we read to one another & conferr’d on what we read. Ralph was inclin’d to pursue the Study of Poetry, not doubting but he might become eminent in it and make his Fortune by it, alleging that the best Poets must when they first began to write, make as many Faults as he did. Osborne dissuaded him, assur’d him he had no Genius for Poetry, & advis’d him to think of nothing beyond the Business he was bred to; that in the mercantile way tho’ he had no Stock, he might by his Diligence & Punctuality recommend himself to Employment as a Factor, and in time acquire wherewith to trade on his own Account. I approv’d the amusing one’s Self with Poetry now & then, so far as to improve one’s Language, but no farther. On this it was propos’d that we should each of us at our next Meeting produce a Piece of our own Composing, in order to improve by our mutual Observations, Criticisms & Corrections. As Language & Expression was what we had in View, we excluded all Considerations of Invention, by agreeing that the Task should be a Version of the 18th Psalm, which describes the Descent of a Deity. When the Time of our Meeting drew nigh, Ralph call’d on me first, & let me know his Piece was ready. I told him I had been busy, & having little Inclination had done nothing. He then show’d me his Piece for my Opinion; and I much approv’d it, as it appear’d to me to have great Merit. Now, says he, Osborne never will allow the least Merit in any thing of mine, but makes 1000 Criticisms out of mere Envy. He is not so jealous of you. I wish therefore you would take this Piece, & produce it as yours. I will pretend not to have had time, & so produce nothing: We shall then see what he will say to it. It was agreed, and I immediately transcrib’d it that it might appear in my own hand. We met. Watson’s Performance was read: there were some Beauties in it: but many Defects. Osborne’s was read: It was much better. Ralph did it Justice, remark’d some Faults, but applauded the Beauties. He himself had nothing to produce. I was backward, seem’d desirous of being excus’d, had not had sufficient Time to correct; &c. but no Excuse could be admitted, produce I must. It was read and repeated; Watson and Osborne gave up the Contest; and join’d in applauding it immoderately. Ralph only made some Criticisms & propos’d some Amendments, but I defended my Text. Osborne was against Ralph, & told him he was no better a Critic than Poet; so he dropped the Argument. As they two went home together, Osborne express’d himself still more strongly in favor of what he thought my Production, having restrain’d himself before as he said, lest I should think it Flattery. But who would have imagin’d, says he, that Franklin had been capable of such a Performance; such Painting, such Force! such Fire! he has even improv’d the Original! In his common Conversation, he seems to have no Choice of Words; he hesitates and blunders; and yet, good God, how he writes! When we next met, Ralph discover’d the Trick, we had played him, and Osborne was a little laughed at. This Transaction fix’d Ralph in his Resolution of becoming a Poet. I did all I could to dissuade him from it, but He continued scribbling Verses, till Pope cur’d him. He became however a pretty good Prose Writer. More of him hereafter. But as I may not have occasion again to mention the other two, I shall just remark here, that Watson died in my Arms a few Years after, much lamented, being the best of our Set. Osborne went to the West Indies, where he became an eminent Lawyer & made Money, but died young. He and I had made a serious Agreement, that the one who happen’d first to die, should if possible make a friendly Visit to the other, and acquaint him how he found things in that Separate State. But he never fulfill’d his Promise.