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

Crises of Self-Made Manhood in American Literature Since the 19th Century

The moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS. That - with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word “success” - is our national disease.

William James

I didn’t want you to think I was just some nobody.

Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby

Success narratives and the ‘new world’ social order they project of course have not gone unchallenged. In this section, I will exemplarily discuss literary texts - short stories, novels, essays, and poetry - which from the beginning have provided critical perspectives on the success myth. My first example will be Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” (1832); written and published more than 40 years after Franklin’s death, it offers a quite skeptical view on the transitional process at the end of which the self-made man emerged as a new cultural type in North America. An initiation story set in the pre-revolutionary period, the text revolves around Robin, a young man who goes to Boston, where his uncle, a high-ranking official in the colonial government - titular character Major Molineux - is supposed to act on his behalf and help him to settle in. Throughout the story, Robin is in search of his uncle and invokes him as a paternal authority figure and benefactor, but when he finally meets him at the story’s traumatic climax, the Major has been tarred and feathered and is paraded through the town by an angry revolutionary mob. Seeing that his uncle has lost his position of authority, Robin does not even consider attempting to establish himself in the city without the Major’s support and wishes to return to his home, yet a fatherly friend advises him to stay and try to “rise in the world, without the help of your kinsman, Major Molineux” (19). The short story plays off the notions of European social hierarchy and ‘new world’ equality against each other and “takes part in the cultural process that constructs self-made manhood” (Walter, “Doing” 21) as it narrates the shift from “the social habits of deferential hierarchy” (ibid. 23) to self-made manhood and democracy by having Robin display the former throughout much of the story until in the end, he is rudely confronted with the advent of the latter. Hawthorne’s ambivalence regarding revolutionary upheaval has often been noted and is evident in the unflattering depiction of the mob (cf. Bercovitch, Office); “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” can thus also be read as a critique of the self-made man (cf. Leverenz, Manhood

235), as the story points to the violence that accompanies his emergence. While Franklin’s projection of upward mobility seems rather enthusiastic and embraces the full spectrum of economic success, social respectability, and participation in public life for the greater common good, other writers of the early republic, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Kirke Paulding, James Fenimore Cooper, and Washington Irving, were more ambivalent toward the abolition of established social hierarchies and less eager to celebrate the new national ideal of ‘equality.’

Self-made manhood is accentuated in yet another way by Transcendentalist writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who connect it to an inner-directed way of life rather than to notions of material success and social permeability. Both writers thus critically comment on Franklin’s success credo by providing a decidedly anti-materialistic and spiritual perspective on selfculture and “self-reliance” (cf. Emerson’s famous essay of the same title). In his late poem “Success,” Emerson contrasts success based on “the exact laws of reciprocity” and the “sentiment of love and heroism” with success that rests on “a system of distrust, of concealment, of superior keenness, not of giving, but of taking advantage” (232); for Emerson, the focus on outward success in hegemonic conceptualizations of the self-made man produce and conceal self-estrangement and alienation. Henry David Thoreau picks up on this theme in Walden (1854) when he states that “[t]he mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” (8). In Walden, which recounts how Thoreau lived for two years in solitude in a hut at Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts, the author seems to mock Franklin when he elaborates in the first lengthy chapter titled “Economy” on how he has to live frugally due to his limited financial means, and even offers the statistics he used to calculate his living expenses. Thoreau’s concept of selfmaking can be considered anti-Franklinesque in that it rejects the rags-to-riches scheme by following a reverse trajectory that seemingly moves from ‘riches’ to ‘rags’ (cf. Parini, Promised Land 115-17). The 19th-century Transcendentalist tradition, of which Emerson and Thoreau are two of the most famous representatives, will in the following continue to critically flank more positive (and popular) representations of the self-made man in the American history of ideas and culture.

Another prominent and highly complex (if not enigmatic) 19th-century text that provides a critique of the widely celebrated culture of self-help, optimism, success, and the self-made man certainly is Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story from Wall Street” (1853), which revolves around a young man who is hired by a successful elderly Wall Street lawyer (the story’s narrator) as a copyist. This young man - the story’s title character - refuses to function in a rationalized capitalist economy; when asked to perform certain tasks by his employer, he answers “I would prefer not to” (10). Bartleby’s repetition of this speech act appears, as critics have pointed out, to bear some self-referential quality (cf. Deleuze, Bartleby 19); his regressive development, which is an unmaking rather than self-making, contrasts with the career path of his employer, who qualifies as a self-made man and whose worldview thus prevents him from making sense of Bartleby and his actions. Upon first meeting him, he comments: “I should have been quite delighted with his application, had he been cheerfully industrious. But he wrote on silently, palely, mechanically” (10). The themes of isolation and alienation have repeatedly been pointed out by critics such as Leo Marx, who has read the story as a critique of capitalism (cf. “Melville’s Parable” 605), and Louise Barnett, who has called Bartleby an “alienated worker” in the “numbing world of capitalist profit and alienated labor” (“Bartleby” 385); and yet, Bartleby’s self-assertion is neither compliance nor refusal in that it preserves a balance between affirmation and negation, as Giorgio Agamben has pointed out (cf. Bartleby 38). Michael Rogin calls attention to Bartleby’s “passive resistance” (Subversive Genealogies 195), which is explicitly acknowledged in the story by his employer: “Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance” (13); Rogin thus considers the story in terms of its political message:

Bartleby protests, with “passive resistance,” against his condition. In refusing to copy, he is copying Thoreau. “I simply wish to refuse allegiance,” announced Thoreau, “to withdraw.” Bartleby’s “I prefer not to” is an echo of “Civil Disobedience.” (Subversive Genealogies 195)

The connection between Melville’s character Bartleby and Thoreau’s writings has also been established by other critics: “Bartleby represents the only real, if ultimately ineffective, threat to society; his experience gives some support to Henry Thoreau’s view that one lone intransigent man can shake the foundations of our institutions” (Marx, “Melville’s Parable” 621). Whereas Dan McCall considers an exclusively economic interpretation of Melville’s “Bartleby” as perhaps too narrow in view of the existential angst that this story confronts us with (cf. Silence), such an interpretation is certainly correct in pointing out that the story has the hegemonic discourse of the self-made man appear as profoundly lacking in the “humanity” that its narrator in the end proclaims upon the death of his former employee.

In the last decades of the 19th century - a period that in reference to Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s novel of the same title has been called the Gilded Age - and in the early 20th century, class and class difference were explored by realist/naturalist writers such as William Dean Howells, Henry James,

Edith Wharton, and Theodore Dreiser, in whose works the US does not at all appear as an egalitarian but instead as a highly stratified society with finely- tuned mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion. These mechanisms are often examined by these authors with the aid of characters representing the businessman as the prototype of the self-made man in the emerging corporate America; one example of such a businessman is Silas Lapham, the title character of William Dean Howells’s The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), a so-called nouveau riche who, having made a fortune in the mineral paint business, seeks to increase his social status by building a mansion in a fashionable Boston neighborhood and by having one of his daughters marry Tom Corey, the son of a genteel family that has less economic but far more social and cultural capital than the Laphams; for the Coreys however, the fact that Lapham is a self-made millionaire does not compensate for his lack of etiquette and his proud and boastful manner. When Lapham finally makes a decision that is ethically right but costs him much of his fortune, the Laphams move back to their family home in the countryside and accept their financial decline that returns them to middle-class status, which in the logic of the novel is a return to moral integrity (cf. Fluck, Inszenierte Wirk- lichkeit 226). By construing capitalism and the “superabundance” connected to the self-made man as “a violation of the old ways and of the family itself” (Michaels, Gold Standard 39) and Lapham’s bankruptcy as leading to his redemption (cf. ibid. 40), the novel reflects on the psychological costs of self-made manhood and suggests a chiastic relation between material success and moral self-realization, as upward mobility in economic terms comes at the cost of alienation and moral decline, whereas financial ruin leads to true self-discovery. Thus, the ending may be considered positive, if not happy (cf. Boesenberg, Money 137). Howell’s novel can be described as an “inverted success story” (Fluck, Inszenierte Wirklichkeit 281) that reflects on changes in American culture; according to Donald Pease, the novel

provided a representative account of the conflict, following the transition from a predominantly agrarian to an industrialized nation, between the restraint of self-made men and the unrestrained self-interest of laissez-faire individualists. [...] In this transition, the selfmade man was replaced by the competitive personality, who depended less on his faith in character and more on the power of his drives to get whatever he wanted. (“Introduction” 15-16)

The figure of the self-made man is used in Howells’s novel to critique a historical turning point after which economic success was increasingly achieved through speculation rather than work; that Silas Lapham remains bound to a traditional work ethic eventually makes him lose his self-made status under the conditions of a changing economic system.

Stephen Crane’s late short story “A Self-Made Man” (1899) is lighter in tone and offers an ironic perspective on the subject of upward mobility; in this “little parody” (Solomon, Stephen Crane 60), Tom, a young man without means, becomes successful after helping an illiterate old man he happens to meet on the street regain his property by posing as his lawyer; even if Tom realizes that “he had not succeeded sooner because he did not know a man who knew another man” (129) - adding connections, or social capital, to chance and deceit as reasons for his success - the narrator ironically remarks near the end of the story that Tom’s “fame has spread through the land as a man who carved his way to fortune with no help but his undaunted pluck, his tireless energy, and his sterling integrity” (ibid.). That Crane satirizes the Horatio Alger formula as well as the genre of self-help and advice literature becomes even more obvious from the subtitle of the story - “An Example of Success That Any One Can Follow” - and from its ending, where its protagonist, who developed from “Tom” into “Thomas G. Somebody” (ibid.), “gives the best possible advice as to how to become wealthy” to “struggling young men” in newspaper articles (ibid.).

The (preliminary) endpoint of the self-made man’s development from a rural to an industrial and finally to a market-oriented and corporate figure seems to have been reached with The Great Gatsby (1925), whose titular character in Lionel Trilling’s view is an allegorical figure that “comes inevitably to stand for America itself” (Liberal Imagination 251). Much of the scholarship on Fitzgerald’s novel has focused on the American dream, or rather “the withering of the American dream” (Tyson, Critical Theory 69). However, it is noteworthy to point out that ‘American dream’ as a catchword became popular only with the publication of James Truslow Adams’s The Epic of America (1931); thus, Fitzgerald’s novel, by using interconnected characters of different backgrounds - Gatsby, a self-made man who has acquired his status and wealth by using dubious means, narrator Nick Carraway, an ambitious young man, the upper-class Buchanans, and the working-class Wilsons - deconstructs an implicit exception- alist understanding of success in US society years before it was explicated in Adams’s book.

Self-made manhood in the context of corporate and consumer culture has also been paradigmatically embodied by the figure of the salesman. Whereas salesmen “were heralded as the self-made men of the new century” (Kimmel, Manhood 71), they were also used as allegorical figures in texts that critiqued success ideology; a prominent example of the latter is Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman (1949), which revolves around protagonist Willy Loman’s futile attempts at self-making in a culture characterized by affluence, mass-production, and an economic rationale that ultimately considers human beings just as expendable as the (mass) goods they produce and sell. Loman’s materialistic worldview renders him a paradigmatic specimen of what David Riesman, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denney refer to as “outer-directed” individuals in their sociological study of character in corporate America, The Lonely Crowd (1950). Beside Miller’s play, there have been numerous literary texts (as well as other cultural productions) that have more or less critically dealt with corporate culture in the 20th and 21st centuries, among them for example Sinclair Lewis’s Babbit (1922), Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955), Joseph Heller’s Something Happened (1974), and, more recently, the television series Mad Men (2007-).

The works I discussed in this section exemplarily show that the self-made man has not only been a figure of consensus but also one of controversy and criticism. By expressing anxieties about the overthrow of established social hierarchies, offering spiritual conceptualizations of self-making, critiquing capitalism and corporatism, or warning of the fleeting nature of material wealth, all of these texts point to the precariousness of dominant white, masculinist, and individualist notions of self-made manhood in the US.

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