Friday, May 15, 2009

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

Mr. Poor Richard, who, by the way, are you?

J.A. Leo Lemay concludes an analytic sketch of Poor Richard with a provocative question concerning Franklin’s relationship to the persona. Alluding to Poor Richard’s prediction and subsequent assertions of Titan Leeds’ death, Lemay asks:

“Was [Franklin] like the contemporary writer he most admired, Jonathan Swift, or was he instead really like the almanac maker Partridge?”

In other words, is Franklin the heedless provocateur or the well intentioned, if somewhat wacky, moralizing almanac maker?

The easiest answer is that he is exclusively neither but compositely both. Unlike Swift, who despised the commonalty of proverbs, Franklin saturated the available space in the almanacs with them. Yet, like Swift, he appreciated the possibility that personae afforded to question absolutes by blurring the distinction between appearance and reality.

Poor Richard could therefore simultaneously register on two frequencies: That of invested embodiment of republican virtue cultivation and that of socially divested satirist of humanity. The satire and humor, however, were invoked insofar as they too could serve as a “Vehicle for conveying Instruction among the common People:” “As Charms are nonsence, Nonsence is a Charm.”

The transmissibility of humorous language—and a central tenet in Franklin’s aesthetic system is the need for language to travel easily—validates its use. And the almanac in the colonial, eighteenth-century American Northeast had the broadest distribution of any print medium, as its clientele was largely rural at a time when upwards of 95% of the population was rural.

Although Franklin stopped directly producing the almanacs in 1758 (well before the revolution), maxims like “the King’s cheese is half wasted in parings: But no matter, ‘tis made of the people’s milk” already exhibit a sense of egalitarianism and distributive justice, which would become compartmental to his understanding of republican virtue.

With this sense underpinning his endeavor, the business model of the almanac—which matched Franklin’s aesthetic of broad communicability, saturated as it was with apothegmatic commentary—could inculcate a great number of colonial residents with those virtues, which he would later come to identify as essential to a functional Republic.

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