The All-American Prospect
Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College
The All-American Prospect
Samuel S. Berbano
From the Bard' s heart-wrenching stories of love and tragedy to Bill O' Reilly' s sharp wit and social commentary, writers through the ages have had much to say about the human condition. While many critics are not as well known as these two, other authors like Ben Franklin and Henry David Thoreau have done much to influence our American sensibilities. Before he became one of our nation' s founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin worked his way up from being born the fifteenth of seventeen children to becoming the anonymous, proverb-spouting author of the popular Poor Richard's Almanack, which he published for twenty-five years until 1757. While his bits of American wit and wisdom are less familiar to our Millennial generation, many a Builder and Boomer went to bed hearing Poor Richard's famous proverb "Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise."
Our other author, Henry David Thoreau, became the original proponent of passive, nonviolent resistance 157 years ago when he refused to pay his poll tax, which supported the Mexican War. Thoreau is better known for his two-year sojourn in the Massachusetts wilderness, which was the basis for his famous book Walden, or Life in the Woods, which discusses the benefits of frugal, simple living. To the casual observer, it seems like these two authors -- one who laid the foundation for our nation's government and another who wrote Resistance to Civil Government -- are greatly at odds. But after a few minutes of comparing the two, it becomes clear that Thoreau and Franklin are too complex of characters to be given such plain and generic labels as "alike" or "different." While their opinions on many subjects like hard work or fashion appear to differ on the surface, the common thread of American wisdom is spun throughout.
Consider Franklin's thoughts on clothing: "Industry gives plenty . . . and the diligent spinner has a large shift [wardrobe]." At first glance, he and Thoreau seem to have nothing in common, because Thoreau blasts extravagance with a three-page volley, saying that "we worship not the Graces, nor the Parcæ, but Fashion." But before we rush to judgment, we must heed Poor Richard' s proverb that "a little neglect may breed great mischief" and examine these authors' comments closer; by investigating the context of their statements, we see that our authors are actually arguing the all - American prospect of having their cake and eating it too!
Next, we must examine their attitude on another subject--hard work. Thoreau's time was occupied, but only "six weeks a year [were spent] meet[ing] the expenses of living," leaving the rest of his time for writing. But what exertion he accomplished in those six weeks -- building, farming, and incredible work. And the ever-dutiful Franklin leaves us a chart of his labors: while running on seven hours of sleep every night, he crafted an enduring legacy of thoughtful writing and interesting research. In one of his "Poor Richard" proverbs, he says, "fly pleasures, and they'll follow you;" what better way to avoid pleasure if not through work?
We see our authors' attitudes toward these subjects of work and luxury, but now their true message of wisdom shines forth. Upon closer examination, their thesis of the way to wealth through work or even the lap of luxury through labor is made clear. Franklin speaks of the diligent seamstress having a large wardrobe, but also of the humble farmer on his legs as being "higher than a gentleman on his knees." The truth is that the seamstress and the farmer produce for themselves and receive shares of their labor. Thoreau derides people who work themselves ragged for their extravagant lifestyle, but after his six weeks of hard labor, he reaps his reward of time to reflect and write about his days at Walden Pond.
Franklin and Thoreau's roads to wealth travel the same distance, but lead to two different kinds of riches: one of intellect and study, the other of natural beauty and simplicity.