Dr. Teresa Coronado
13 December 2012
“The Whistle”: Aldridge Rucker, “Franklin’s ‘Whistle’ Still Ringing True Today”
Commonly, while reading works from the canon of early American literature, one might feel alienated, or unable to relate to the material at hand; the settings and interactions, morality, daily routines, etc. all seeming foreign and even fantastical – or, at the least, a little different from contemporary life. However, not everything in Early America was entirely different. Some major problems in modern America took root in the Colonial days, and we feel the presence of these issues if not in an even stronger sense today. “The Whistle,” by Benjamin Franklin, written in 1779 and first published in 1921 by Brad Stephens & Company, is a truly American piece, years ahead of its time, and it deserves a place in the canon of American literature as it is a critical text on the effects of materialism (a truly relatable topic, given the 200 year gap) on one’s health.
Franklin’s work (originally written as a letter to a friend) points out the negative effects of having a materialistic mindset, a problem he observed in many of his fellow Americans. Although “The Whistle” is a brief piece, it touches on a wide range of issues concerning materialism that can still be felt, if not more predominately in modern society. In his book, Consumerism: As a Way of Life, Steven Miles supports Franklin’s keen observation by stating, “Everyday life in the developed world appears… to be dominated by our relationship with consumer goods” (1). Miles’ statement about modern society (similar to many contemporary opinions) shows how important the topic of materialism is today. Due to the modern relevance of the problems Franklin discusses, it is remarkable that “The Whistle” was written over 200 years ago. With the potential flaws of materialism that Franklin discusses, his work also shows how it was a concern then, too.
Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) is undoubtedly one of the most famous men in American history - he even holds the popular nickname “The First American” (Brands). In 1732, he began to issue the “Poor Richard’s Almanac” filled with “borrowed or composed… pithy utterances of worldly wisdom which are the basis of a large part of his popular reputation” (Franklin 3). So, Franklin gained a reputation through his literature, another reason why all his works are important. He also wrote, “Father Abraham’s Sermon,” which is “now regarded as the most famous piece of literature in Colonial America” (3). He gained fame in science, philosophy, literature, and public affairs among other realms (3). Although the highly esteemed Benjamin Franklin wrote many famous works of literature, “The Whistle” remains fairly unknown, despite its crucial depiction of early America and what Franklin viewed as a major problem – materialism.
In “The Whistle,” Franklin tells an anecdote of when he was younger in which he paid a large sum for a whistle which brought him great joy; however, after returning home, his parents laughed and told him he paid four times too much for the toy whistle’s worth (“The Whistle”). This disheartened Franklin, and the idea of “paying too much for one’s whistle” became, to him, a metaphor for the way that some people place too much value in what he calls “things” (“The Whistle”). Franklin’s idea of “paying too much for one’s whistle,” is very similar to the idea of “materialism,” which can be defined as an “interest in and desire for money, possessions, etc., rather than spiritual or ethical values” (“The Whistle”; “Materialism”).
What makes this such an important piece of American literature, is how throughout “The Whistle,” Franklin hints at the ways materialism can become a competition, effecting one’s relationships with others and how materialism can affect one’s own mental well-being. What also makes this piece so important is the way it touches on groundbreaking observations that show up in modern research.
One way in which Franklin criticizes capitalism, is by pointing out flaws in competition – a major driving force of capitalism. By stating, “When I saw one ambitious of Court favour, sacrificing his … Virtue and perhaps his Friend, to obtain it; I have said to myself, This Man gives too much for his Whistle,” Franklin seems to suggest that by desiring one thing so heavily, such as “court favour” (or flattery), one often sacrifices “virtue” and friendship (“The Whistle”). The quest for material, or impersonal things, becomes a competition, as Franklin suggests, standing in the way of personal relationships. Franklin also states that, in search of these “things” (in this particular instance - “popularity”), one “neglect[s] his own Affairs, and ruin[s] them by that Neglect,” which can be interpreted as stating that one often forgets (“neglects”) family members or friends (“Affairs”) in the competition for wealth or material possessions, and even if they achieve the possession, they destroy their relationships in the process (“The Whistle”). Franklin furthers his critique of competition by suggesting that it becomes worse than a competition. In a normal competition, one is aware of his/her competitors; however, Franklin suggests that one becomes so consumed by the quest for material possessions, that one simply forgets about all other people entirely. In other words, materialism leads to selfishness, as one becomes solely concerned with self-gain.
Franklin’s idea of materialism becoming a selfish quest is supported by modern studies.
Russell W. Belk, Ph.D., states that, “materialism is an essentially egotistic trait that opposes altruism and… sharing” (Belk). Modern social scientist, Daniel Yankelovich, is quoted in Belk’s work as stating, “consumption has led American consumers away from each other,” which is also in agreement with Franklin that a materialistic mindset can destroy relationships (3). These contemporary ideas show how important and foretelling Franklin’s views truly were. The idea of the impersonality among those who “pay too much for their whistles,” or, materialistic types, again resonates in Belk’s argument, when he states that “our society of shoppers has produced social relations that are more impersonal… and certainly less community-minded than we wish” (3). All of this seems to suggest that while consuming is an important factor of capitalism, one must be careful not to let the luster of material objects, and the appeal of more abstract things such as popularity stand in the way of human relationships. However, disconnected relationships and selfishness aren’t the only negative effects of materialism that Franklin alludes to.
When discussing the drawbacks of “paying too much for one’s whistle,” Franklin also alludes to the psychological effects materialism can produce. Franklin states how, while attempting to gain material possessions, some people “sacrific[e] every laudable Improvement of [their] Mind … ruining [their] Health,” which shows just how detrimental Franklin believed materialism to be to one’s mental health (“The Whistle”). This is another reason why Franklin’s, “The Whistle” is crucial to the literary canon; Franklin’s perception of the psychological problems of materialism are drastically ahead of his time as, today, this problem has been given notable scientific attention. In his book, The High Price of Materialism, Tim Kasser states, “People who strongly value the pursuit of wealth and possessions,” (or, like Franklin says, people who “pay too much for their whistle,”) Kasser continues, “report lower psychological well-being than those who are less concerned with such aims,” in other words, putting high value on material objects can end up effecting one’s own mental health (2). This point only adds to the seriousness which Franklin took the subject of materialism among Americans.
In Franklin’s view, putting too much value on material items is “a great [misery] of mankind” (“The Whistle”). The grandiosity of this statement implies that Franklin (again, arguably one of the most famous and admired Americans in history) saw materialism as a major problem in American society and the seriousness in which this esteemed American viewed materialism again proves why this text is so crucial to a true depiction of American history.
Although Franklin lists what he believes to be the reasons for materialistic pursuit; that is, the ultimate goals that he believes people are aspiring toward in their pursuits (“court favour,” “popularity,” “wealth,” “corporeal satisfactions,” “appearance,” and, perhaps the most materialistic, “cloathes [sic], fine houses,” and “fine furniture”), he never clearly indicates why, in his opinion, one might sacrifice his/her relationships and health for these objects (“The Whistle”). He only states that the “great Part of the Miseries of Mankind are brought upon them by the false Estimates they have made of the Value of Things,” in other words, the main argument Franklin is making is that one of the largest producers of “misery” in America, is the way that people place to much value on material things (“The Whistle”). The broad critique of American materialism made in “The Whistle” calls for many questions such as: What do people see as the ultimate reward of materialism? Do people think this reward is worth more than personal relationships? There are many questions proposed by “The Whistle” which are now being explored scientifically (Kasser).
All in all, Franklin’s incredible perception of his fellow men, especially impressive being written at such an early time in American history before mass media advertising and shopping malls, begs for further exploration into why people place such a high value on material items and the scientific search, as stated earlier, is underway today. The seriousness that many modern studies place on materialism and its impact on one’s health and relationships with others shows that Franklin’s “whistle” can still be heard today, now louder than ever. Although “The Whistle” might be viewed as a brief parable, it not only contains a highly important lesson, especially to Americans, but also evidence that the darker side of materialism was rearing its ugly head over 200 years ago.
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