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Persona in Autobiography

by Marianne Grisolano
Moraine Valley Community College
Palos Heights, Illinois

Part of a study of nonfiction, including structure, style, and purpose, this lesson is based on Benjamin Franklin's The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. It takes up one to two days after the students have begun reading the text (an abridged version), and follows a general introduction to autobiography.

  • To enable students to experience the ways an author, even in an autobiographical piece, can take on different personas
  • To demonstrate how the author's choice of persona helps establish and enhance the purpose and the structure and style of the text
  • To analyze the effect of the various personas Franklin assumes in his autobiography
Activities and Instruction
The class begins with an activity to focus the students' attention and provide a basis for discussion during the explanation/lecture portion of the lesson. Students begin by spending two minutes responding to the following prompt:
Briefly describe yourself as three of the following: a student, a friend, a son or daughter, or a member of your age group.
Students share their responses as a lead-in to an explanation of autobiography that includes the following main points.

Autobiographies are accounts of people's lives written by themselves. They relate the authors' own experiences and/or life histories from their points of view. In one sense, any life story is a self-justification and, as such, is affected by the point of view from which it is told. The authors of autobiographies, like any authors, choose how to present their characters to the audience/readers. They take on a persona, possibly more than one persona, in order to advance their purposes in writing the piece. The various personas also contribute to the structure and narrative flow of the text and create a particular perspective from which events and incidents are related.

After this explanation, students do two exercises: one drawing on personal experience to explore the concept of persona, and a second to analyze persona in Franklin's autobiography.

Using the descriptions from the focus activity, students develop the following scenario by assuming the viewpoint of a specific persona:
You have been randomly presented a $5 million award, payable in a lump sum, all taxes paid.
They might write their reactions from a range of perspectives, such as a struggling student, a friend or child of the winner, or an established professional who is already financially comfortable. After writing for five minutes, students share their responses with their groups (of four), and each group makes a general report to the class, examining how the perspective changes with each persona.

Next, we discuss how Franklin utilized a variety of personas in The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. He was at various times:
Talkative Old Man
Poor Boy Who Made Good
Naïve Believer in Human Perfectibility
An accessible example to analyze is the Talkative Old Man. By focusing on the opening paragraphs as a letter written to his son William, students discuss Franklin's sense of reminiscing on his life, thanking God for his good fortune, and establishing the premise and purpose of the text to follow. Through these elements, he creates a sympathetic and likeable persona.

Students are assigned the following for homework.
Franklin uses a variety of personas in his autobiography: Talkative Old Man, Dandy, Poor Boy Who Made Good, Naïve Believer in Human Perfectibility, Sage, and Benefactor. Find an example of four of these personas in the first 150 pages of the text. (You must use different examples than those analyzed in class.) Then answer the following questions for each persona you have chosen.
  1. What purpose does this persona serve in the creation of our perception of the author?
  2. How does Franklin's choice contribute to the flow and structure of the narrative?
  3. Which persona do you find most effective? Why?

Marianne Grisolano has taught composition and literature at the college level for six years. She is currently an adjunct instructor at Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Heights, Illinois. She earned a bachelor's degree in English and an Illinois secondary teaching certificate in 1995. She also holds a master's degree in communications and is currently completing her second master's degree in writing at DePaul University.

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