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A lecture from a history class

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Listen to part of a lecture from a history class.

Prof: Benjamin Franklin was a renowned statesman, a successful proprietor, an avid philosopher, and a prolific scien [false start] uh, inventor. As we learned from our reading this week, his inventions include bifocals, the Franklin stove, the odometer, and, of course, the lightening rod.

Today, though, I want to argue the case that Franklin's greatest legacy was not in any of those roles, or as a founding father of the United States, but as a writer. Do any of you know a book that Franklin has written? Anyone? Well, that's because Franklin wrote, er, didn't write any great novels, a la later US greats like Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Mark Twain. Ahem. But I think an analysis of Franklin's writing style, his instincts, his sensibilities and his accomplishments reveals that he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as those literary giants.

Like Hemingway, Franklin began as a newspaper reporter, then moved on to publish essays, journals and books. His most famous books are Autobiography, Way to Wealth and Poor Richard's Almanack, an annual publication that he founded and authored from 1732 to 1748. Franklin's first literary contributions were essays printed in 1722 in the New England Courant, a newspaper published by his brother James. Ben's writing style at this time was modeled principally upon that of The Spectator, a British paper edited by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. Early on, though, Franklin displayed an innate ability to write concise, clear news stories. In 1729, he became publisher and editor of The Pennsylvania Gazette, which he developed into a newspaper universally acclaimed as the best in the American colonies.

Franklin made three great contributions to American literature. First was his preference to share his opinion about popular topics, instead of simply reporting on current events -- um, much in the vein of a modern newspaper columnist. Through his writings, Franklin helped shape America's national identity, by shifting Americans' consciousness from a spiritual Puritanism to, uh, secular rationalism, which was characteristic of eighteenth century enlightenment. He thus created a percep [false start] uh, a dawning awareness that America was a country with distinctly different values and interests than those of England. Poor Richard's Almanack and his Autobiography, for example, are written in the style of self-help guides. They're packed with enlightenment maxims such as "an investment in knowledge pays the best interest," "time is money," and "hear reason, or she'll make you feel her." Franklin imbued his journalism with a similar tone. In an article entitled "Death of a Drunk," for instance, he used a true story to pass on a moral lesson about the dangers of drinking. Author Robert Arner said that Franklin's writings "demonstrate a," um, "deep and abiding belief in the power of the press to educate the public on topical issues."

Prof: Franklin's second contribution was his sense for unusual and interesting news stories, which set a tone that has carried over to modern newspapers. The Pennsylvania Gazette specialized in brief, offbeat articles, such as a husband who tried to decapitate his wife's adulterer, and a fiddler who saved his fiddle -- but not his wife -- from a capsized canoe. Although some criticized this as sensationalistic, or "yellow" journalism, Franklin's venerable wisdom and natural wit permeated the short reports and attracted a huge and loyal audience. Ahem. In this sense, we might call Franklin the father of tabloid journalism. So you can thank Ben next time you're in a supermarket checkout line and see the headline: "Michael Jackson spotted on UFO." [laughter]

Prof: Franklin's third significant contribution to US literature is his writing style, which reflects the philosophy he expressed in a 1732 essay. Good writing, he said, should be quote smooth, clear and short. Compared with other eighteenth century authors, Franklin's writing is much more concise and readable. That comparison holds not only among his contemporaries, however, but also among writers in the following three centuries. Franklin played a leading role in developing journalism as a terse writing form, getting quickly to the point and dwelling on important issues instead of secondary facts. Moreover, Franklin was a word economist, finding the shortest way to express a thought, as demonstrated by his vast coinages of aphorisms. The chief reason Franklin's sayings remain popular today is due not to their moral wisdom but to their brevity. Advice such as, "Well done is better than well said;" "when in doubt, don't" dispense moral certitudes in sentences that are catchy and easy to remember - a timeless writing tip. How many of you have heard your English teacher mention K-I-S-S? What does that mean?

S: Keep it short and simple.

P: Yep. Keep it short and simple. That was a formula Ben Franklin was practicing long before someone coined a name for it. Given all this, it's no wonder that Scottish philosopher David Hume called Franklin, "America's first great man of letters."


What aspect of Ben Franklin's life does the speaker mainly discuss?


According to the professor, what resulted from Franklin's sense for unusual news stories?

Listen again to part of the passage and answer the following question.


What does the professor mean when he says this: "...and, of course, the lightening rod"?


Why does the professor mention K-I-S-S?


What can be inferred about the professor?


Which of the following is mentioned in the lecture as one of Franklin's contributions to American literature?


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