Poor Richard's Almanack by Benjamin Franklin

Start Your Free Trial

Download Poor Richard's Almanack Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Poor Richard's Almanack Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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 neighbors, if your own windows are glass”; “Fish and visitors stink in 3 days”; “Haste makes waste”; “Eat to live, and not live to eat.” Scholars point to the role that experience plays in the sayings found in Poor Richard’s Almanack: It is not scholarly pursuits but wise, practical living that paves the road to virtue.

Although there were allusions to Deism (“Serving God is doing Good to Man, but praying is Thought an easier Service, and therefore more generally chosen”) and the theories of Locke, Newton, and the essayist Francis Bacon, they were versed in language that indicated that such ideas could be acquired through experience—which includes, in the Lockean sense, observation. Thus, those colonists (and there were a great many) who did not have access to books could gain much contemporary philosophical and literary thought through Mr. Saunders’s Almanack. Franklin’s sayings, while not original in themselves, were revised to adapt to the emerging working class of the American colonies. Such an infusion of philosophical ideas dealing with equality helped give the American colonies the intellectual impetus for the Revolution that occurred less than twenty years after the last edition of Poor Richard’s Almanack was published.

One final note as to the popularity of Poor Richard’s Almanack concerns the Revolutionary War naval hero John Paul Jones, who waited for months in France for a refitted man-of-war promised to him by the French monarchy to aid the independence effort. Finally, Jones recalled a maxim from Poor Richard’s Almanack. “If you’d have it done, go; if not, send,” and he marched to Versailles and demanded the vessel. The resulting warship was christened Bonhomme Richard in appreciation of the influence of Poor Richard’s Almanack on the indomitable Jones.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1,842 words.)