poor richard’s almanack -- 1/9/23

Today's selection -- from Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson. Poor Richard's Almanack, which helped bring founding father Benjamin Franklin wealth and fame:

"Poor Richard's Almanack, which Franklin began publishing at the end of 1732, combined the two goals of his doing-well-by-doing-­good philosophy: the making of money and the promotion of virtue. It became, in the course of its twenty-five-year run, America's first great humor classic. The fictional Poor Richard Saunders and his nagging wife, Bridget (like their predecessors Silence Dogood, Anthony After­wit, and Alice Addertongue), helped to define what would become a dominant tradition in American folk humor: the naively wicked wit and homespun wisdom of down-home characters who seem to be charmingly innocent but are sharply pointed about the pretensions of the elite and the follies of everyday life. Poor Richard and other such characters 'appear as disarming plain folk, the better to convey wicked insights,' notes historian Alan Taylor. 'A long line of humorists­ -- from Davy Crockett and Mark Twain to Garrison Keillor -- still re­work the prototypes created by Franklin.'

"Almanacs were a sweet source of annual revenue for a printer, easily outselling even the Bible (because they had to be bought anew each year). Six were being published in Philadelphia at the time, two of which were printed by Franklin: Thomas Godfrey's and John Jerman's. But after falling out with Godfrey over his failed matchmak­ing and losing Jerman to his rival Andrew Bradford, Franklin found himself in the fall of 1732 with no almanac to help make his press profitable.

1739 edition of Poor Richard's Almanack

"So he hastily assembled his own. In format and style, it was like other almanacs, most notably that of Titan Leeds, who was publish­ing, as his father had before him, Philadelphia's most popular version. The name Poor Richard, a slight oxymoron pun, echoed that of Poor Robin's Almanack, which had been published by Franklin's brother James. And Richard Saunders happened to be the real name of a noted almanac writer in England in the late seventeenth century.

"Franklin, however, added his own distinctive flair. He used his pseudonym to permit himself some ironic distance, and he ginned up a running feud with his rival Titan Leeds by predicting and later fabri­cating his death. As his ad in the Pennsylvania Gazette immodestly promised:

Just published for 1733: Poor Richard: An Almanack containing the lunations, eclipses, planets motions and aspects, weather, sun and moon's rising and setting, highwater, etc. besides many pleasant and witty verses, jests and sayings, author's motive of writing, prediction of the death of his friend Mr. Titan Leeds ... By Richard Saunders, philomath, printed and sold by B. Franklin, price 3s. 6d per dozen.

"Years later, Franklin would recall that he regarded his almanac as a 'vehicle for conveying instruction among the common folk' and therefore filled it with proverbs that 'inculcated industry and frugality as the means of procuring wealth and thereby securing virtue.' At the time, however, he also had another motive, about which he was quite forthright. The beauty of inventing a fictional author was that he could poke fun at himself by admitting, only half in jest, through the pen of Poor Richard, that money was his main motivation. 'I might in this place attempt to gain thy favor by declaring that I write almanacks with no other view than that of the public good; but in this I should not be sincere,' Poor Richard began his first preface. 'The plain truth of the matter is, I am excessive poor, and my wife ... has threatened more than once to burn all my books and Rattling-Traps (as she calls my instruments) if I do not make some profitable use of them for the good of my family.'

"Poor Richard went on to predict 'the inexorable death' of his rival Titan Leeds, giving the exact day and hour. It was a prank borrowed from Jonathan Swift. Leeds fell into the trap, and in his own almanac for 1734 (written after the date of his predicted death) called Franklin a 'conceited scribbler' who had 'manifested himself a fool and a liar.' Franklin, with his own printing press, had the luxury of reading Leeds before he published his own 1734 edition. In it, Poor Richard re­sponded that all of these defamatory protestations indicate that the real Leeds must indeed be dead and his new almanac a hoax by some­one else. 'Mr. Leeds was too well bred to use any man so indecently and scurrilously, and moreover his esteem and affection for me was ex­traordinary.'

"In his almanac for 1735, Franklin again ridiculed his 'deceased' rival's sharp responses -- 'Titan Leeds when living would not have used me so!' -- and also caught Leeds in a language mishap. Leeds had declared it was 'untrue' that he had himself predicted that he would 'survive until' the date in question. Franklin retorted that if it were untrue that he survived until then, he must therefore be 'really defunct and dead.' ''Tis plain to everyone that reads his last two almanacks,' Poor Richard jibed, 'no man living would or could write such stuff.'

"Even after Leeds in fact did die in 1738, Franklin did not relent.

"He printed a letter from Leeds's ghost admitting 'that I did actually die at that time, precisely at the hour you mentioned, with a variation only of 5 minutes, 53 seconds.' Franklin then had the ghost make a prediction about Poor Richard's other rival: John Jerman would con­vert to Catholicism in the coming year. Franklin kept up this jest for four years, even while he had, once again, the contract to print Jerman's almanac. Jerman's good humor finally ran out, and in 1743 he took his business back to Bradford. 'The reader may expect a reply from me to R-- S--rs alias B-- F--ns way of proving me no Protestant,' he wrote, adding that because 'of that witty perfor­mance [he] shall not have the benefit of my almanack for this year.'

"Franklin had fun hiding behind the veil of Poor Richard, but he also occasionally enjoyed poking through the veil. In 1736 he had Poor Richard deny rumors that he was just a fiction. He would not, he said, 'have taken any notice of so idle a report if it had not been for the sake of my printer, to whom my enemies are pleased to ascribe my productions, and who it seems is as unwilling to father my offspring as I am to lose credit of it.' The following year, Poor Richard blamed his printer (Franklin) for causing some mistakes in the weather forecasts by moving them around to fit in holidays. And in 1739, he lamented that his printer was pocketing his profits, but added, 'I do not grudge it him; he is a man I have great regard for.'"

 | www.delanceyplace.com


Walter Isaacson


Benjamin Franklin: An American Life




Copyright 2003 by Walter Isaacson


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