Friday, May 15, 2009

Catechism on American Wealth: How it Works and Why to Read Ben Franklin, VII

Mr. Poor Richard, why exactly were the almanacs important?

The interspersion of sententiae among the monthly tabulation of meteorological forecasts, religious and national holidays, moon cycles, and general notes on husbandry, was neither an innovation by Franklin nor a feature exclusive to his almanacs. The format of Franklin’s almanac—including adjoined poems, currency conversion charts, and lists of timelines and approximations of the earth’s age by various ancient civilizations (Greeks, Romans, Jews, et al.)—was already established in the style of contemporaneous almanacs (Leeds’ and John Jerman’s, for example, in Philadelphia, the latter of the two even printed by Franklin).

Franklin’s almanacs are instead distinct in that he improved the sententiae by making them wittier and in that he completely filled any available space in the monthly tables of the almanac with them. That he differed his almanac by filling “all the little Spaces that occur’d between the Remarkable Days in the Calendar, with Proverbial Sentences, chiefly such as inculcated Industry and Frugality,” is readily evident with the most cursory glance. The July, 1734, entry in Leeds’ almanac:

Compared to Franklin's entry for the same month and year:

Leeds’ almanac has six aphorisms, five on the right column and one more on the lower left, with eight blank spaces between the text, totaling 55 words of apothegmatic statement. Whereas Franklin’s July has seven aphorisms, four on the right column and three on the left, with three (possibly four) blank spaces between the text, totaling 94 words of apothegmatic statement (including the three rhyming lines at the bottom left appended to the weather prediction, which have an apothegmatic quality). Unlike Leeds’ organizational structure, where the sententiae stand strictly uninterrupted by other information, Franklin’s sententiae run over and are ran over by the weather predictions, the moon cycles, and the astrological configurations, at times jumbling together different lines of information to bizarre result.

From July 5 to July 20, for example, the sententiae, which are always italicized, often force the de-italicization of weather predictions (‘Thunder,’ ‘hot weath’), which are typically in italics to distinguish them from the notes on special days (‘Dog Days’), which are in standard type, but which become confused with the proper names in the sententiae (‘Bucephalus’, ‘Alexand.’, and ‘Chili’ below), which have to be put into standard type to be distinguished as proper names; creating odd semiological cross-threads such as, “or rain,/ Bucephalus the/ Horse of Alexand./ sultry hot/ hath as lasting fame/ as his Master.”

Franklin crams the sententiae into the daily tabulation of contingent predictions of weather and notation of holidays, despite the jumbling, as if to afford any given day a snippet of condensed, functional moralization. As Thompson’s signboard was reduced to the utile core of a name and image, or as the character of a person might be reduced to a simple image resulting from the impression a banging hammer might make in the mind of their creditors, the concise semantic construct, the utile apothegm—the simple, moralizing sentence—is inversely offered as the holistic substance of virtue for a day in a structure of daily regimentation.

Virtue, in effect, is being promoted to the public on a daily basis.

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