Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Quote of the Day (Ben Franklin, Copping to Never Writing the Things He Wrote)

“I know as well as thee, that I am no poet born; and it is a trade I never learnt, nor indeed could learn. . . .Why then should I give my readers bad lines of my own, when good ones of other people’s are so plenty? ’Tis methinks a poor excuse for the bad entertainment of guests, that the food we set before them, though coarse and ordinary, is of one’s own raising, off one’s own plantation, etc. when there is plenty of what is ten times better, to be had in the market.”—Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanack, 1746

“I never said the things I said,” said Yogi Berra, and in the lines above Benjamin Franklin admits, sort of, the same thing about his own writing. He might not have been a "poet born." The fact is, though, he had been writing, secretly, satiric letters even as a teenager under the pseudonym “Silence Dogood” that older brother James had published in his New England paper.

Now, nine years later after coming to Philadelphia to make his fortune as a runaway apprentice from his brother—on this date in 1732—Franklin expanded his initial success as a printer by publishing Poor Richard’s Almanack. In time, over the course of the next quarter-century that he would issue this publication, this side venture became more popular and influential than the business that started it all, the Pennsylvania Gazette

What started out as strictly a local phenomenon (albeit one that, even so geographically restricted, was so successful that Franklin printed three issues in its first month) spread until Franklin was publishing three different regional editions.

“Intellectual property” as a concept simply was in its infancy, even in England, at the time Franklin began issuing his almanacs. He was comparatively free to borrow sayings he thought useful to fill up the pages of his book, in between the items related to the calendar, weather, astronomical and astrological observations that made the book so popular in the rural American colonies. That consideration, space, actually drove Franklin to improve on what he borrowed. Or, as somebody else might put it: “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

Take the saying “An empty Bag cannot stand upright,” which Franklin borrowed for his 1740 edition. He started out by changing the word “bag” to “sack.” Over time, though, finding the need to fill more space in the almanac, he expanded this.

What has gotten lost in time is the number of sayings that were whimsical or even bawdy (e.g., “Fart proudly” and “Let thy maidservant be faithful, strong, and homely”). That is because of a streak of secular moralizing, if you will, to which its publisher gave ven. 

Toward the end of his run as publisher, Franklin compiled a miscellany of the more popular proverbs from the book into The Way to Wealth into a 30-page compendium, The Way to Wealth. This guide to financial self-improvement became enormously influential, with its precepts (e.g., “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise”) taken to heart by one business magnate after another in the United States ever since. (The tendency toward list-making and relentless self-improvement also characterizes young James Gatz--a.k.a. Jay Gatsby--in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.)

The advice also been inflicted on countless schoolboys worldwide—which seems to be, at least partly, the source of the irritation that novelist D.H. Lawrence expressed in a chapter-long rant on Franklin in his 1923 book, Studies in Classic American Literature:

“I can remember, when I was a little boy, my father used to buy a scrubby yearly almanac with the sun and moon and stars on the cover. And it used to prophesy bloodshed and famine. But also crammed in corners it had little anecdotes and humorisms, with a moral tag. And I used to have my little priggish laugh at the woman who counted her chickens before they were hatched and so forth, and I was convinced that honesty was the best policy, also a little priggishly. The author of these bits was Poor Richard, and Poor Richard was Benjamin Franklin, writing in Philadelphia well over a hundred years before.

“And probably I haven't got over those Poor Richard ` tags yet. I rankle still with them. They are thorns in young flesh.”


Had Lawrence looked objectively at this, rather than yielding to his instinctive anti-Americanism—had, in short, he’d been able to regard Franklin as something more than what historian David Waldstreicher, in Runaway America, called “the prophet of a repressive bourgeois capitalism”—he might have noticed something that made this financially successful patriot a kindred spirit to himself.

“He that hath a trade hath an estate,” Franklin advised. In the England of Franklin’s time, the aristocracy enjoyed unequal privileges, political as well as economic, over the common people. They spent their time in idleness and looked down on the very idea of a “trade” or occupation. Those class distinctions still existed in Lawrence’s Britain in his own time, albeit to a (somewhat) diminished degree--and this product of the working class sought, by every means necessary in his art, to break out of his condition and dissolve the gulf between the rich and poor.

Franklin’s exhortations offered another way out of this sociopolitical statis favoring the wealthy. He offered a dynamic based on individual striving: Effort was the great equalizer. The proverbs might sound humorless, but they are liberating. Moreover, at a time when schools are drilling into their students the virtues of self-esteem, these sayings offer a useful corrective: self-esteem should be tied inextricably to self-improvement.

Or look again at that proverb about the sack. By the time he returned to it, as an old man, in his Autobiography, he had enlarged its meaning: It was "more difficult for a Man in Want to act always honestly, as (to use here one of those Proverbs [from Poor Richard]) it is hard for an empty Sack to stand upright.” A realist who fully recognized the difficulty in retaining virtue in the face of poverty, he sought to provide, by his example, a means of, if you will, self-independence.

(Image shows Poor Richard, 1739; An Almanack for the Year of Christ 1739, from the Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division.)

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