It’s All Ben Franklin’s Fault!

Because we are approaching Thanksgiving and because I am preparing for a trip to Boston, this post is a continuation of my series on early American writers

Why are you reading this blog post when you could be working?

I am stressed, frazzled, and tired.  I never feel like there are enough hours in the day to accomplish everything that needs to be done.  In this respect, I would venture to say that I am like the majority of Americans of working age.  We are all, it seems, working frantically to get ahead (or at least keep up) at the workplace.  In addition, we are expected to work at home to create the Perfect Homes and Families.  Then, of course, we have to work out to create ideal bodies.  After that, we have to read self-help books in order to improve our dismal selves as quickly as possible (preferably in three easy steps.)

Are you, like me, exhausted and fed up with the endless pursuit of excellence?  If so, blame Benjamin Franklin.

Sure, Mr. Franklin was a great guy who rose from humble origins to social and political prominence.  He did some cool things, like signing the Declaration of Independence, discovering electricity, inventing bifocals, yadda yadda yadda.

I’m ticked off at him anyway.  I’m peeved because he wrote The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1791) which is one of the earliest and most successful “self-help” books ever published.   His basic idea is that, with hard work, anybody can achieve anything they want.  (I’m sure you’ve heard this idea before if you are American.)

He also proffered the idea that we can and should aim to improve ourselves not just financially, but also morally.  As he put it, “It was about this time that I conceiv’d the bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection.  I wished to live without committing any Fault at any time; I would conquer all that either Natural Inclination, Custom, or Company might lead me into  As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other.”

Now if Franklin wanted to get ahead and become morally perfect, more power to him.  The problem is, his autobiography (and the example of his life) became so prominent that suddenly EVERYBODY in America was expected to follow his suit and spend every waking hour in pursuit of Success and Perfection.

This, dear reader, is why YOU are overworked and stressed!  This is also why our (virtual) bookstores are overflowing with shelves of self-help books.  They are just following the lead of Franklin, who showed us in his autobiography HOW he achieved such prominence.   HINT:  He devoted every minute of every day to some sort of “improving” activity.

Between 5:00 and 8:00 a.m. for example, this is what he did.  He rose with the Morning Question of “What Good shall I do this Day?  Then he would “rise, wash, and address Powerful goodness, Contrive Day’s Business, and take the Resolution of the Day; prosecute the present Study; and breakfast?”

After that, he’d go to work for several hours.  During the lunch period he would “read, or overlook my Accounts.”  He’d then go back to work, and so forth.

I call BALDERDASH!  It’s time we Just Say No to being more productive, to working harder, to getting ahead!  Enough is enough!

In my anti-Franklin self-help plan, I would propose a schedule more like the following:

 5:00-8:00 a.m.:  Sleep, of course!

 8:00 – 10:00: a.m  Drink coffee, eat breakfast, read whatever you want, take a shower, put on comfy clothes that are neither fashionable nor flattering.

     10:00 – 12:00 : Go to work.  If you must.

12:00 – 2:00:  Long leisurely lunch accompanied by a bottle of wine.

2:00 – 4:00:  Nap or other restful pleasures.

4:00 – 6:00:  Work some more if you insist.

6:00 – 9:00:  prepare dinner, eat it, converse, drink more wine.

10:00 – 12:00:   Relax after your hectic day in whatever way you like.

With my plan, you are guaranteed to achieve minimum productivity, but you’ll enjoy the ride a heck of a lot more.

I am so eager to help you out, by the way, that I am willing to send you the details of this remarkable strategy for anti-success for a mere $25.00.

However, if you prefer a more traditional approach to success, then you may be interested in my other book, which has helped millions of people.  It’s called How to Find True Love, Get Rich Quick, and Lose Weight Fast by Having Sex in the City with Vampires.  ($35.00 Hardcover.)

Anne Bradstreet: Badass Puritan Poet

Anne Bradstreet
Anne Bradstreet

Because Thanksgiving season is upon us and because I will soon be travelling to Boston, I am continuing my series highlighting early American writers.  Yesterday, I wrote about the literary duel between Thomas Morton (the bad boy of early New England settlers) and William Bradford, the long-time governor of Plymouth Bay Colony.

Today, I am focusing upon the first English-speaking poet published in America:  Anne Bradstreet.  As you might guess from her name, she was a woman.  She was also a devout Puritan who married at age 16 and raised eight children in the howling wilderness of Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Managing to become the first published poet of North American while being a female Puritan makes Anne Bradstreet distinctly Badass, in my humble opinion.  Bradstreet lived from 1612-1672, and she published her collection of poetry called The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America in 1650.

let us now praise badass women

During this time period, women—to put it mildly—were considered inferior to men and were expected to conform to female duties of running a household and raising children.  They were not expected to become published poets.

To give a example of the cultural attitudes that the prevailed, one historical document suggested to women readers that they should “derive their ideas of God from the contemplations of her husband’s excellencies.”

[Excuse me while I gag.]

So it was against strong odds that Bradstreet managed to publish a book of poetry.  It helped that her brother-in-law was a strong advocate of her work; he took a copy of her work to London to get it published.

The preface her brother-in-law wrote to the book explains much about the attitudes of the time:

.. .the worst effect of his [the reader’s] reading will be unbelief, which will make him question whether it be a woman’s work, and ask, is it possible?  If any do, take this as an answer from him that dares avow it; it is the work of a woman, honored, and esteemed where she lives, for her gracious demeanor, her eminent parts, her pious conversation, her courteous disposition, her exact diligence in her place, and discreet managing of her family occasions, and more than so, these poems are the fruit but of some few hours, curtailed from her sleep and other refreshments(my emphasis)

In other words, it is hard to believe that a woman could write poetry.  It is also rather disgraceful.  But, since the woman still managed to be well-behaved and did her domestic duties, I guess we can allow it.

Bradstreet tended to write about issues dear to many women’s hearts:  her husband, her children, her home, and her struggle to reconcile her faith with her more worldly desires.  People today who read her work out of context probably find it conventional and unremarkable.  (I know that was my first reaction to it.)

However, given her time period and her context as a Puritan settler in North America, her choice of subject matter was actually quite rebellious.  The Puritans in America were generally quite literate and promoted reading and writing—up to a point.  The only subject matter they really approved of was religious subject matter.  If a person was going to write poetry, they should be sure to write poetry in praise of God.  There was no other point in writing.

Bradstreet was a religious woman and she did often write about God.  But she also wrote about private, domestic matters.  For many of her fellow Puritans, such topics were considered frivolous or inappropriate. But that did not stop Anne Bradstreet.

In one of her poems, for example, “Before the Birth of One of Her Children,” she wrote a poetic letter to husband.  In this poem, she expressed her fears that she might die in childbirth (a realistic fear at the time) and hoped that her husband would remember her lovingly.  She also hoped that he would raise their children well, and not let any wicked stepmother abuse them:

“And when they loss shall be repaid with gains,

Look to my little babes, my dear remains.

And if thou love thy self, or loved’st me,

These O protect from step-dame’s injury”

Other topics of her poetry include love poems to her husband, poems in memory of a deceased young grandchild, and even a poem lamenting the loss of her house to fire.  She often wrote about her faith, but when she did so, she highlighted the very real struggles she often faced in trying to understand why thing happened the way they did.

Despite the centuries that separate contemporary readers from the 1600s, I think most women can relate to at least some of Bradstreet’s poems.  Reading her poetry helps me to understand early Puritans as full-blooded human beings, rather than just one-sided symbols of early America.

National Blog Posting Month
National Blog Posting Month

Animal House in the Land of the Puritans: Thomas Morton

William Bradford
William Bradford

photo source

I will be visiting Boston, Massachusetts in a couple of weeks.  In preparation for my visit, I am going to highlight a few early American writers, most of whom lived in New England.

If you paid attention when you were in school, you most likely learned about William Bradford, who was governor of the colony of Plymouth from 1621-1657.  Much of what we know about the early separatist settlers comes from his history On Plymouth Plantation.

As you can imagine, life was hard for these early settlers who were trying to form a religiously pure community untainted by the corrupt ways of the Church of England back home.  Not only did Bradford’s community have to battle against nature, hunger, disease, Native Americans and the like, but they also had to battle against other English settlers of a dissolute nature.

Thomas Morton
Thomas Morton

photo source

Thomas Morton was one of these settlers, a major thorn in the side of Governor Bradford. Thomas Morton was not part of Plymouth; he was neither a Separatist nor a Puritan.   He was the breed known as a “Cavalier,” someone loyal to the King and Church of England.  For Bradford, that amounted to almost the same thing as atheism.  Furthermore, according to Bradford’s account, Morton and his band were licentious drunks who partied too much.

Worse yet, Morton invited Indians to his celebrations. [Gasp!] It nearly drove Bradford into a apoplectic fit when he heard that on May Day, Morton’s band got together with Indians to celebrate.  They all gathered together to cavort around a maypole, a true sign of paganism for Bradford. The Governor wrote that  “They also set up a maypole, drinking and dancing about it many days together, inviting the Indian women for their consorts, dancing and frisking together like so many fairies, or furies, rather; and worse practices.”

In other words, Bradford considered Morton and his pals to be the Animal House of Puritan times.

The truly shocking thing about Thomas Morton, however–the unforgivable thing–is that he did not consider Native Americans to be savages.  In his book New England Canaan, Morton goes to great length to portray the Native Americans as more civilized than the fanatical Separatists of Plymouth Plantation.  Morton points out that the Indians display a reverence for God, a deep sense of hospitality, a natural modesty, a respect for old age, and a reverence for authority.

Morton believed the Separatist and Puritan English would be better off if they respected the ways of the Indians and formed true friendships with them, rather than treating them as Satan’s minions and an impediment to be overcome.

Unfortunately, there was no room for such radical beliefs in early New England.   Thomas Morton was arrested and exiled by the Plymouth authorities.   I wonder how our country would be different if Morton’s views had prevailed.

Thomas  Morton