Essentially Poor Richard’s Almanack embodies all the themes of the Autobiography in a witty and accessible format. Franklin’s literary influence on Poor Richard’s Almanack comes in a variety of forms: Proverbs, epigrams, rhymes, and aphorisms abound in each edition, usually interspersed among the calendars, weather forecasts, and astronomical charts. Each edition opens with a letter from the almanac’s alleged author, one Richard Saunders (another Franklin pseudonym). He was “excessive poor” but fascinated with the heavens. Influenced by his wife, who could not bear “to sit spinning in her Shift of Tow,” he was compelled to publish his observations. Thus, Franklin presents to his readership “middling people” who had to work long and hard to save and prosper—one of their own, a man of humble means in search of moral perfection and its resultant prosperity.
Few of Franklin’s sayings in Poor Richard’s Almanack were original. He borrowed many of them from larger poetic works written within the preceding five or ten years; the poetic satirists Alexander Pope, John Dryden, and Jonathan Swift are heavily borrowed from but revised by Franklin to fit the needs and tastes of his readership. Many of these sayings have become oft-repeated foundations of American cultural heritage: “A true friend is the best possession”; “Don’t misinform your Doctor nor your Lawyer”; “Don’t throw stones at your...
Benjamin Franklin circulated the annual Poor Richard’s Almanack with great success in prerevolutionary Philadelphia. He boasted in his autobiography that the almanac eventually reached ten thousand readers, a remarkable feat in a city with a population of approximately fifteen thousand people. Franklin had published short pieces using pseudonyms such as Silence Dogood, but the pseudonym Richard Saunders or, as he would come to be known, Poor Richard, became one of Franklin’s favorites during his early career as a printer.
In Franklin’s time, the almanac served not only as a valuable source of information about the weather but also as a form of entertainment. Franklin’s effort to both inform and entertain is evident from the beginning of Poor Richard’s Almanack, but his emphasis changed over time. As Franklin grew older and became involved in civic improvements in Philadelphia, the desire to offer useful advice began to overshadow the humor found in earlier issues of the almanac.
Beginning with the 1733 issue and continuing to the issue of 1739, one can identify a number of similarities. Each issue begins with a short essay of introduction, signed by Richard Saunders (with one exception), followed by monthly poems and several maxims. The issues close with some additional material, most often a report on eclipses that Franklin sometimes uses for humorous purposes. One can detect Franklin’s struggle to make the almanac stand out from its competitors in the market: For example, he makes use of a hoax concerning the death of a rival, Titan Leeds, even having Leeds return from the dead to write a ghostly letter replying to disbelievers. Problems in mathematics and mysteriously worded prophecies provide diversions for the reader as well. Many of these elements are presented in the form of what today might by called cliffhangers, with the promise of further revelations in subsequent issues.
The format of the introductory essay, monthly poems and maxims, and a variety of closing material is used in issues published after 1739. Although Franklin varies the presentations somewhat, the basic structure of the almanac remains the same.
The monthly poems, which usually deliver some moral point, as well as the maxims, made Poor Richard’s Almanack famous. Many well-known quotations from Franklin come in the form of his maxims. They all share the characteristic of being short, and are often playfully worded. The maxims, which cover a variety of topics, consistently advocate, for example, moderation and temperance in the consumption of food and spirits (with frequent warnings against drunkenness). His advice on money encourages the reader to work hard, save money, and live simply; however, he also frequently warns against seeking wealth for its own sake and against being miserly.