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Home arrow Geography arrow The Myths That Made America : An Introduction to American Studies

VII Expressive Individualism and the Myth of the Self-Made Man

Why the Self-Made Man?

The legendary hero of America is the self-made man.

Irvin G. Wyllie, The Self-Made Man in America

It is strange to see with what feverish ardour the Americans pursue their own welfare, and to watch the vague dread that constantly torments them lest they should not have chosen the shortest path which may lead to it.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Besides notions of religious predestination, political liberty, and social harmony, the imagined economic promises of the ‘new world’ constitute another important dimension of American exceptionalism and US foundational mythology. The popular phrase ‘rags to riches’ describes social mobility in analogy to geographical mobility in the discourse of westward expansion, the difference being that the latter refers to horizontal and the former to vertical mobility. Historically, the notion that upward mobility in US society is unlimited regardless of inherited social and financial status has been used to contrast the US to European societies with rigidly stratified social hierarchies, and to support the claim that the American economic system leads to a higher standard of living in general as well as to a higher degree of individual agency and economic opportunity; Myth and Symbol scholar David Potter, for example, described Americans within this framework of economic exceptionalism as a “people of plenty” and defined “economic abundance” as a decisive “force in US history” (People 75). In the 19th century, European visitors to the US, among them Alexis de Tocqueville (cf. Democracy), Joanna Trollope (cf. Domestic Manners), Harriet Martineau (cf. Society), and James Bryce (cf. American Commonwealth) have remarked on the hectic commercial activities of Americans and considered their peculiar pursuit of material gain as an aspect of the American national character. In the 20th century, Theodor W. Adorno, who was more critical than many visitors before him, identified a culturally specific “barbarian success religion” in American society (“Tugendspiegel” 354). In its hegemonic version, the myth of the self-made man refers, first of all, to expressive individualism and individual success and describes a cultural type that is often seen as an “American invention” and a “unique national product” (Cawelti, Apostles 1). Second, based on the assumption of competitive equality, the self-made man has often been connected to utopian visions of a classless society, or at least to a society that allows considerable social mobility. Upon closer examination, the mirage of classlessness is often connected to the belief that most Americans belong to the middle class, into which most Americans will group themselves even in the face of contradictory empirical evidence: very few “will willingly say that they are in any other class” (Robertson, American Myth 259; cf. Mead, And Keep 54). The illusive conceptualization of the middle class as “homogenous and proximate” (Robertson, American Myth 260) entails not only notions of classlessness but also of democracy, freedom, and equality. This phenomenon has been dissected by Barbara Ehrenreich and others as a kind of ‘false consciousness’ which impedes social change (cf. Ehrenreich, Fear) and may also explain the relative absence of class as a concept and object of analysis throughout much of US social and intellectual history. Thirdly, the culturally specific figure and formula of the self-made man thrives according to all empirical evidence on the illusion that the exception is the rule (cf. Koch-Linde, Amerikanische Tagtraume 9) and thus follows and time and again re-inscribes a social Darwinist logic based on the quasi-natural selection of those fit to compete and succeed in a modern “post-stratificatory society” (cf. Helmstetter, “Viel Erfolg” 709). According to this logic, there is little collective responsibility for the well-being of individual citizens. The illusion of equality - or rather of the equality of opportunity - is at the core of hegemonic discourses that describe social and political hierarchies in American society as temporary rather than as structural (cf. Fluck and Werner, “Einfuhrung” 9). The national type of the self-made man and the creed of American mobility imply “parity in competition” (Potter, People 92), and, in fact, “an endless race open to all” (Thernstrom, Poverty 63) despite the fact that not all start out even or compete on an equal footing, and have been used to bolster the assumption that there are no permanent classes in US society. In “the doctrine of the open race” (ibid.), the providential success of the self-made man was identified with the success of the national project, and expressive individualism was thus regarded not only as the basis for individual but also for collective success.

In many ways, the notion that individuals can determine their own future and change their lives for the better is a modern idea and presupposes modern notions of culture, society, and the individual along the lines of Immanuel Kant’s enlightenment dictum that man will be ‘what he makes of himself’ (Anthro- pologie 29), which later, in Sartre’s reformulation, becomes “[m]an is nothing else but what he makes of himself” (Existentialism 10). This notion is the result of large-scale and complex processes of secularization that are quite at odds with Christian ethics, as it often flaunts competition, self-help, and ambition as its driving forces: “The competitive society out of which the success myth and the self-made man have grown may accept the Christian virtues in principle but can hardly observe them in practice” (Hofstadter, “Abraham Lincoln” 94). This connection - or rather disjunction - of ethics, ambition, and success plays out in culturally specific ways. In the present context, the idea of personal success is closely linked to processes of nation-building. The “pursuit of happiness” (as famously formulated in the Declaration of Independence) and the “promise of American life” (cf. Croly’s book of the same title) in their early exceptionalist logic transfer notions of happiness from the afterlife to one’s earthly existence,

i.e. to the present moment or at least the near future. Coupled with the Calvinist work ethic, the pursuit of happiness constructs the modern individual’s path to happiness as the pursuit of property and allows for self-realization in new ways. This notion has already been at the center of 18th-century ‘new world’ promotional literature, which touted America as an earthly paradise. The self-made man as a foundational mythical figure personifies this promotional discourse, and has been used to allegorize the ‘new world’ social order since the late 18th and throughout the 19th century. Of course, this perspective is highly biased: the eighteenth-century enlightenment subject was conceptualized as white and male, and thus the myth of the self-made man historically applies to white men only; however, in this chapter we will also look at the ways in which this perspective has been revised or amended by other individuals and groups who have appropriated this myth.

The coinage of the term “self-made man” is commonly credited to Henry Clay, who wrote in 1832: “In Kentucky, almost every manufactory known to me is in the hands of enterprising self-made men, who have whatever wealth they possess by patient and diligent labor” (“Defence” 39). The term can thus be considered as yet another neologism of the early republic that speaks to specifically US-American cultural and economic patterns and is deeply intertwined with various aspects of American exceptionalism. There are contradictory forces at work in this notion, as it includes both aspects of self-denial (education, hard work, and discipline) and self-realization based on an ethic of self-interest that aims at the sheer accumulation of property, recognition, prestige, and personal gain without any concern for others. This contradiction is explored repeatedly in scholarly as well as literary texts and in popular culture as the basic conundrum of a myth that defines self-interest as the basis of the common good rather than as an immersion “in the icy water of egotistical calculation” (Marx and Engels, Communist Manifesto).

In this chapter, I will discuss, first, the history of the myth of the self-made man in the late 18th century and the foundational phase of the nation by reference to Benjamin Franklin’s writings and self-fashioning, and second, the popularization of success stories (such as those by Horatio Alger) in the 19th century; I will, third, analyze numerous rise-and-fall narratives and narratives of failure that mark the transition from romantic to realist and modernist representations and that fictionalize and criticize hegemonic ideological manoeuvers in the context of industrialization, immigration, urbanization, and consumer culture; I will analyze, fourth, immigrant fiction, which is often similarly ambivalent, fifth, African American constructions of the self-made man, and sixth, the feminization of this prototypically male formula with respect to the self-made woman; I will, seventh, conclude with some remarks on the myth of the self-made man in the age of globalization.

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