Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1165
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.
Franklin’s maxims also reflect the gender and religious prejudices of his day. His maxims on courtship and marriage elevate women to importance, but only in terms of married life, the keeping of a household, and obedience to husbands. Similarly jarring to modern ears are Franklin’s occasional anti-Catholic references, accusing one rival of conversion to Catholicism as a means of turning public opinion against the writer. Franklin’s Protestantism led him to praise both Martin Luther and John Calvin in his 1749 issue, although his chief praise for both men focuses on their moderation and temperance, not on their religious doctrines.
Most interesting, given Franklin’s later political career, is his general avoidance of colonial politics, including Pennsylvania’s role as a proprietary colony (an issue he would later address as a representative to London) and the British king’s power over the colonies. For the most part, Franklin advises readers to stay out of politics, and the most criticism he levels at monarchy, if one could call it criticism, is to remind the reader of the king’s humanity.
By 1739, the tone of the almanac begins to change. Franklin occasionally inserts brief essays of advice, and nearly every issue between 1740 and 1746 ends with a brief essay or poem attacking lawyers and the courts. Franklin’s closings occasionally include brief essays on living a long life or on how to discover the best amount of meat and drink to consume. In 1743, he offers instruction on how to make wine, and in 1745 he instructs on how to pick out the planets from the stars. He even laments the death of a rival printer, Jacob Taylor, in 1747.
The death of Taylor, in fact, had prompted an important change in the almanac. Franklin announces in his introductory essay to the 1748 issue that he plans to improve the contents of future issues in honor of Taylor. Prior to 1748, each issue had averaged about twenty-four pages, but the improved almanac, he says, will now feature thirty-six pages of material. Into these pages, Franklin pours a series of essays designed to “improve” the reader rather than merely entertain. While the humor of the earlier issues does not disappear, a tone of seriousness begins to dominate the post-1748 issues. Franklin includes essays on topics such as getting rich (1748), the best use of time (1751), the change in calendar ordered by the king (1752), hymns to the creator (1753), the movement of the earth (1753), protecting a house from lightning (1753), and the clergy (1755). For a short time, Franklin even features information on everyday events, such as births and deaths, breaking the pattern of having only poems and maxims. He began this practice in 1748 but ended it by 1751.
The final issues of the almanac reflect this new seriousness most dramatically. The 1756 issue includes short essays covering topics such as curing heartburn and burns on the skin as well as good conversation, expenses, good health, honest labor, temperance, simple living, adjusting to hardship, honor, and industry. A similar list follows in 1757, an issue that includes a lengthy opening essay on setting up a sundial and a closing essay on comets. These two issues—1756 and 1757—are the lengthiest in the series.
The final issue of Poor Richard’s Almanack stands apart from all the others. Franklin had constructed the issue as a culmination of his work: It begins with a lengthy essay relating a story concerning a sermon on self-improvement. In the essay, Franklin collects the variety of maxims on work and frugality that appear in earlier issues of the almanac and concludes that hard work, along with heavenly intervention, will lead to success. This popular essay has since been reprinted under the title “The Way to Wealth.”
Franklin’s legacy as a statesman and visionary could have obscured the significance of Poor Richard’s Almanack, but the almanac’s enduring appeal is based partly on its still-relevant maxims and its still-relevant evocations of what today are called middle-class values. Franklin’s own affection for the moderation that runs through the maxims characterizes his later career, sometimes to the frustration of his political friends. Modern business texts still refer to Franklin’s advice for wisdom, and some critics have argued that Franklin gave early expression to American pragmatism and, thus, to much of the work of philosophers William James and John Dewey.
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