F. Scott Fitzgerald had hinted at this before, near the end of The Great Gatsby. After Gatsby’s death, his father, “a solemn old man,” arrives from small town Minnesota. When he sizes up his son’s sprawling estate, he wants the narrator of the novel, Nick Carraway, to appreciate “Jimmy’s” humble origins and spirit of self-improvement. He presents Nick a dog-eared copy of Hopalong Cassidy and opens it to the back to reveal, in boyish scrawl, a Franklinesque regimen. “On the last fly-leaf was printed the word Schedule,” Nick says, “and the date September 12, 1906, and underneath:
Rise from bed. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6.00 a.m.
Dumbbell exercise and wall-scaling. . . . . . 6.15-6.30 ”
Study electricity, etc. . . . . . . . . . . . 7.15-8.15 ”
Work. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8.30-4.30 p.m.
Baseball and sports. . . . . . . . . . . . . 4.30-5.00 ”
Practice elocution, poise and how to attain it 5.00-6.00 ”
Study needed inventions. . . . . . . . . . . 7.00-9.00 ”
General Resolves No wasting time at Shafters or [a name, indecipherable] No more smokeing or chewing Bath every other day Read one improving book or magazine per week Save
$5.00 $3.00 per week Be better to parents
The irony of this adolescent self-improvement regimen does not escape Nick. It is not that they were altogether unnecessary to Jay Gatsby’s ascent or even that his extravagant lifestyle is clearly odds with them. Rather, it’s that, by the time Gatsby has “arrived,” he is entirely convinced that, pace Franklin, decadent behavior is not only the calling card of success but the best guarantee of its continuance.
* * *
Even if Fitzgerald didn’t explicitly aim to provide a counter-narrative of commercial advancement, the character of Gatsby fits nicely with an archetype exampled from the Gilded Age to Gordon Gekko, one that is less an antihero of capitalism than an alternative to Franklin’s ideal.
Among business-school students, it is also the one that commands the most attention. When I assign passages from the Autobiography to my business-ethics classes, many students regard Franklin as they would an eccentric neighbor who knows more than he’s letting on. The vision of capitalism he embodies is not altogether alien to them, and they often grant that his memoir might be a successful primer for a sterling career in middle-management (a backhanded compliment that invites the reminder that they are, after all, working toward a Master’s degree in “Business Administration”). Yet, for the most part, many students seem convinced that the example of Franklin does not lend itself to real success or the sense of pride consistent with it.
And maybe it doesn’t—at least not if we are talking about a definition of success that Ben Franklin never intended. Not long after he retired to his life of leisure, Franklin wrote his mother to say that he hoped the more likely tribute paid him after his death would be “He lived usefully, than, He died rich.” Of course, mothers like to hear such things, giving sons good reason to say them. But if Ben was describing a commitment that is flattering in theory because it is rarely favored in practice, the degree to which his life reflected it helped distinguish him from the other Founders, whose ambitions more nearly resembled those of an American aristocracy. Among them, the historian Gordon Wood has said, Franklin was not only “the most benevolent and philanthropic,” given that he affirmatively walked away from business at the height of his earnings potential, he was also “in some respects the least concerned with the getting of money.”
Ultimately, for Benjamin Franklin, the question of how to succeed in business could not be divorced from how to succeed in life and, therefore, the ends to which one should live. To live like a king seemed distinctly un-American. To live for no one else seemed unimaginable. If Americans view things differently today, perhaps that says less about how we succeed in business than what we believe it means to lead a life well lived.