Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Publishing Trifecta on December 19

December 19 turns out to be a great day in publishing history.

On this day in 1732 Benjamin Franklin published the first edition of Poor Richard's Almanack.  He continued to issue it annually until 1758.  It was a highly popular—and lucrative—undertaking.  Nothing else published in the Colonies rivaled it as a perennial best seller.  As many as 10,000 copies a year were sold.  Franklin adopted the persona of Richard Saunders, supposedly an astrologer and seeker of knowledge.  The character was actually a satire on popular English almanac publishers.  Eventually Saunders, who was distinct from Franklin, faded and was replaced by Poor Richard, understood to be Franklin.  Under the latter guise the pithy axioms, aphorisms, and proverbs for which the Almanack is still remembered, became a staple of the book.  There were also weather forecasts, tide charts, planting guides, horoscopes, odd bits of scientific and historic information, and humorous stories and poems.  The Almanack encouraged many imitators and the format became a staple of American publishing.  After Franklin retired from active business and suspended the Almanack, it became common for other books to claim some relationship to Franklin.  Most famously the Old Farmer’s Almanac, first published in 1792, claims a connection to Franklin and a portrait appears annually on its cover.  

44 years after Franklin’s first edition, Thomas Paine published his first pamphlet in what became a series of screeds collectively known as The American Crisis.  The first essay opened with lines that became famous—“These are the times that try men’s souls.”  Thirteen pamphlets were published between 1776-1777 with three additional volumes released between 1777 and 1783.  They were an important political statement, a bolster to morale in the darkest days of the American Revolution, and a forthright assertion of Paine’s fervent Deism.  The first pamphlet was admired by General George Washington, who had it read to the Continental Army on December 23, 1776, three days before the Battle of Trenton, and by both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.  Later Paine’s Deism, expounded further in The Age of Reason, earned him the enmity of preachers and the religiously orthodox.  His ardent support of the French Revolution turned Adams and other conservatives further against him.  After he was arrested and in France, Washington, by then President, refused for domestic political reasons to intercede in his behalf.  Despite all of his contributions to American independence, after finally returning to the United States, he eventually died virtually alone and penniless in 1809.

The final publishing event took place across the Atlantic on December 19, 1843.  On that date A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens was published in London by Chapman & Hall.  Dickens was just 31 years old and already one of the most popular writers in England when the novella came out.  Written in a little over a month and a half and the manuscript completed just days before publication, the book was an immediate success, going through seven printings by the following May.  It also achieved critical acclaim.  It has become a classic and the inspiration of many stage and screen adaptations, as well as numerous re-tellings in various settings and time periods.  Dickens’s, at the time attending Unitarian worship, crafted a Christmas story with no mention of Jesus or the nativity.  Instead it was an entirely secular salute to the old English popular holiday re-cast as a morality tale.  The enduring themes of the capacity to redeem oneself by good deeds and charity continue to strike a note with modern readers.

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