Dec. 19, 2010

Weekends, Sleeping In

by Marjorie Saiser

No jump-starting the day,
no bare feet slapping the floor
to bath and breakfast.

Dozing instead
in the nest
like, I suppose,
a pair of gophers

in fuzz and wood shavings.
One jostles the other
in closed-eye luxury.

We are at last
what we are:

and breath
and dream.

"Weekends, Sleeping In" by Marjorie Saiser, from Beside You at the Stoplight. © The Backwaters Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1732 that the first edition of Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac was published.

Franklin's father was a candle-maker and a soap-maker, and Benjamin (books by this author) was number 15 of his 17 children. He was born and grew up in Boston, and at first his father sent him to school so that he could become a minister, but then he decided that ministers didn't make enough money to justify the cost of education. So he pulled Benjamin out of school and put him to work in his shop, but the boy was getting restless and thinking about a life at sea. His father was alarmed, but he figured that since his son loved books so much, maybe he could keep him out of trouble working for a printing press. So when he was 12 years old Benjamin started working as an apprentice to his brother James, who was a printer. A few years later, James began The New-England Courant, the first independent newspaper in the colonies.

Benjamin wanted to write for The New-England Courant. He said: "Being still a Boy, and suspecting that my Brother would object to printing any Thing of mine in his Paper if he knew it to be mine, I contriv'd to disguise my Hand, & writing an anonymous Paper I put it in at Night under the Door of the Printing House. It was found in the Morning & communicated to his Writing Friends when they call'd." He started submitting letters under the persona of Silence Dogood, a middle-aged widow, and the newspaper staff thought they were great — Franklin said that listening to them praise his writing in front of him without knowing it was an "exquisite pleasure."

In "her" first letter, Mrs. Dogood said: "I will not abuse your Patience with a tedious Recital of all the frivolous Accidents of my Life, that happened from this Time until I arrived to Years of Discretion, only inform you that I liv'd a chearful Country Life, spending my leisure Time either in some innocent Diversion with the neighbouring Females, or in some shady Retirement, with the best of Company, Books. Thus I past away the Time with a Mixture of Profit and Pleasure, having no Affliction but what was imaginary, and created in my own Fancy; as nothing is more common with us Women, than to be grieving for nothing, when we have nothing else to grieve for."

Every two weeks, a new letter from Silence Dogood appeared under the door of the print shop. She shared her life story, advice on courtship, and opinions on politics. In a quiet way, she mocked the Boston social elite and their vices, and she even made fun of Harvard. Altogether, 15 of Mrs. Dogood's letters were published in The New-England Courant, and they were incredibly popular, talked about all over town. When Mrs. Dogood hinted that she would consider marriage again, men wrote to the paper offering to be her husband. Then, suddenly, the letters stopped coming. Everyone was concerned about Mrs. Dogood. James printed a notice begging for news of her. So 16-year-old Benjamin confessed. That was really the talk of the town — people thought it was hilarious.

The one person who was not amused was James. He was so upset with his brother that in 1723 Benjamin ended up breaking off his apprenticeship and leaving for Philadelphia, the city that is most associated with him. He worked in publishing houses there and in London. Back in Philadelphia in 1727, 21-year-old Franklin formed a club called the Junto, or the Leather Apron Club, whose members were dedicated to improving themselves and their community — they read and debated and proposed projects. Franklin started the first circulating library in the colonies. And he took over a paper called The Universal Instructor in all Arts and Sciences: and Pennsylvania Gazette, shortened its name to The Pennsylvania Gazette, and made it into the most popular newspaper in the colonies. He managed to do all this by the time he was 23 years old.

A few years later, at the age of 26, Franklin began publishing Poor Richard's Almanac. He wrote in his autobiography: "In 1732 I first published my almanack under the name of Richard Saunders; it was continued by me about 25 years, commonly called 'Poor Richard's Almanac.' I endeavored to make it both entertaining and useful, and it accordingly came to be in such demand that I reaped considerable profit from it, vending annually near 10,000, and observing that it was generally read, scarce any neighborhood in the province being without it, I considered it as a proper vehicle for conveying instruction among the people, who bought scarcely any other books; I therefore filled all the little spaces that occurred between the remarkable days in the calendar with proverbial sentences, chiefly such as inculcated industry and frugality, as the means of procuring wealth, and thereby securing virtue, it being more difficult for a man in want to act always honestly, as to use here one of those proverbs, 'It is hard for an empty sack to stand upright.'"

Even though everyone knew that Richard Saunders was Benjamin Franklin, he enjoyed using a pseudonym and kept it in place for all 26 annual issues of the almanac. And it gave him a chance for Richard Saunders to insult his printer, Benjamin Franklin.

Poor Richard started out as a dull astronomer who couldn't get anything right, but over the years he became more of a hard-working, morally upright citizen. The cover of the first almanac advertised its contents: "The lunations, eclipses, judgment of the weather, Spring tides, planets, motions, and mutual aspects, sun and moon's rising and setting, length of days, time of high water, fairs, courts, and observable days." But what made Poor Richard's Almanac such a mainstay in Colonial life were the clever sayings, what Franklin called "proverbial sentences." Franklin isn't exactly the author of these proverbs — plenty were already sayings, well-known or obscure — but he rewrote them to sound as folksy and American as possible, and also as clever.

In Poor Richard's Almanac, Franklin wrote:
"Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead."
"Fish and visitors smell after three days."
"Beware of the young Doctor & the old Barber."
"There are no gains without pains."
"A learned blockhead is a greater blockhead than an ignorant one."

Exactly 44 years later in the American Colonies, Thomas Paine (books by this author) published his first pamphlet in a series called "The American Crisis." It was a bleak moment of the Revolutionary War, with morale at an all-time low. Campaigns in New York and Long Island had been a disaster. The troops were cold and hungry, needing food, warm clothes, and blankets, and they had just been forced to retreat across New Jersey. Desertion rates were high, and many of Washington's troops were at the end of their term of service, but reinforcements hadn't come.

But on this day in 1776, Paine published "The American Crisis," and immediately Washington ordered for it to be read to his soldiers. It began: "These are the times that try men's souls; the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; 'tis dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper prince upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed, if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated."

Paine's good writing did end up doing some good. Soldiers were inspired, and the pamphlet coincided with the arrival of provisions and reinforcements from other divisions. The men were able to rally enough to carry out a daring and successful attack, crossing the icy Delaware River on Christmas Day through a snowstorm. On the morning of December 26th, they won an impressive victory at the Battle of Trenton, and the Continental Army was ready to go again.

It was on this day in 1843 that Charles Dickens (books by this author) published A Christmas Carol. A year earlier, he had read a disturbing news story about child labor in England, and so he had visited Cornwall to see for himself the horrible conditions of child workers in the mines there. Then he visited free schools for poor children. By the time he was through, he was so angry that he decided to write and publish a book exposing the terrible situation of children in poverty, and publish it at his own expense. That was A Christmas Carol in Prose, now called just A Christmas Carol.

A Christmas Carol follows the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge, a mean old miser. At the beginning of the book, his view toward Christmas is: "Every idiot who goes about with Merry Christmas on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart." And after hearing that some poor people would rather die than go to prisons or workhouses, all he can say is: "If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population." But by the end, he has taken on the role of a second father for the poor, crippled son of a man who works for him. And he exclaims: "I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a school-boy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody!"

In 1840s England, Christmas was enjoying a comeback. It had once been a huge, ceremonial event, but in the 17th century the Puritans declared it illegal. Since the actual date of Christ's birth is not named in the Bible, the Puritans were suspicious of Christmas, thinking it was too pagan. A significantly toned-down version started to be celebrated again in the 18th century. But it was only in the years before Dickens published A Christmas Carol that the holiday was really taking off, partly because in 1840 Queen Victoria married a German prince, Albert, and having a German influence in the royal family helped re-popularize traditions like Christmas trees.

A Christmas Carol showed Christmas as a time for family, for simple pleasures, for gathering around the table — what we call "the Christmas spirit." It was also a time for parties, for dancing and drinking and playing games, which was dangerously close to Pagan rituals in the eyes of some. But Dickens' vision of Christmas caught the imagination of readers in England and America, and it helped create the Christmas ideal that is all around us today.

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