While I have said, and maintain, that the essence of the self-made man is plural and diverse at any given time, I also believe that at certain moments in U.S. history some domains of the archetype have been dominant and then have given way to others. In other words, there is a story here. Insofar as that story has been told to date, it has largely focused on tracing shifting currents in the blizzard of self-help literature that blanketed the British North America between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. In our time, however, the discourse has been less a matter of formal exhortation than illustration through specific (and sometimes fictive) characters and personalities whose stories in effect become fables of success, which like all good fables, are marked by countercurrents subject to multiple interpretations. I believe I can trace this story, peopling it with a series of biographical sketches, and explain how the self-made man emerged, proliferated, narrowed and appeared to disappear. This will be the heart of the book, whose outlines I will now trace.
As virtually all historians of the topic have noted, the origins of the self-made man in English North America are fundamentally religious. In the colonial era, the concept was, paradoxically, a godly imperative that emerged from the dialectics of Protestant Christianity. Reformation era sects in England marked their distance from corrupt Roman Catholic practices by emphasizing a personal relationship to God. While such sects rejected notions of free will that were later central to the conception of the self-made man, the primacy they placed on the individual conscience proved pivotal in the emergence of what would become an increasingly secular vision of the self in which moral considerations would long linger. Such dynamics can be well illustrated in the career of Roger Williams (above), the essence of the theological individualist and a man widely regarded as the founding father of religious liberty in America. They call also discerned in the philosophy of important evangelists like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield.
Religious versions of the self-made man would remain important into the eighteenth century. But the coming of the American Revolution opened the possibility of a fundamentally political vision of the self-man, one vividly embodied by Founding Fathers like George Washington and John Adams (who was fond of describing himself as the son of a shoemaker). This model remained important through the development of ratification of the Constitution, receding in centrality thereafter, though there would continue be important figures (notably Abraham Lincoln) who found their calling, sometimes after periods of uncertainty and adversity, in politics.
The very success of the founding generation cleared a literal and figurative space in which millions of ordinary Americans could imagine new destinies for themselves. Some of these people, like Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman, flaunted their ordinariness even as their singular talents allowed them to write themselves into history. Others, like the powerfully inspiring Frederick Douglass, dramatized the way the concept could expand to encompass even the most unlikely of prospects.
By the second half of the nineteenth century, however, the durable link between the self-made man and economic success had become apparent, dominant, and widely celebrated. A series of figures born in the crucible years of 1835 to 1840 became the barons of their age, defining the imagination of their peers and subsequent generations well into the 20th century. Perhaps more than other self-made men, they also dramatized the ambiguities, even contradictions, involved in such an identity. Crucial figures here stretch from Andrew Carnegie (archetype of the self-made man as immigrant) to Thomas Edison (the scientist as entrepreneur) and Henry Ford (whose rustic sensibilities made him a somewhat ironic godfather of consumer capitalism).
Over the course of the twentieth century, the measures of success steadily shifted from outward achievement to inner satisfaction, variously understood and achieved through a series of sub-cultural movements that have come to be collectively known as “New Thought.” In this psychological age, the terrain shifted back toward more cultural ground. Particularly important here is the new phenomenon of the celebrity, embodied by figures who ranged from Douglas Fairbanks to Clint Eastwood, who defined the parameters of what came to be known as “the good life.” There was tension, even paradox, built into a conception of an authentic self that was often commercially purveyed. As a result, there was a partial rebellion against this model in the iconoclastic self-made men in the Beat era and the counterculture of the 1960s, both of which rejected the avowedly economic conception of the self-made man as hopelessly atavistic. The intentions of these iconoclasts notwithstanding, they failed to alter many of its underlying premises.
Indeed, for all their variety, the various iterations of the self-made man finally rested on a core premise that laced through them all. That premise is agency: the self-made man was the master of his own fate. Other societies had made similar claims – indeed, all societies, from Confucian China the Imperial Britain had self-made men – but no society had ever been quite so insistent on this point as the United States. As I began by saying, we have difficulty today taking this idea seriously at face value. And yet, in part because we are uncomfortably aware of the degree to which our lives are determined by factors beyond our control, a presumption, if not an obsession, with agency lingers even as it has receded from the foreground of public discourse, apparent everywhere from colleges we attend to the beverages we order at our local Starbucks.
This seems like a good moment to bring back people who have been missing since the start of this proposal: women. In an important sense, the agency of men was understood, even defined, when juxtaposed by the lack of agency for women. Of course, men’s agency was almost always partial by dictates of race, class, age and health, among other reasons. But in an important sense manliness correlated to the degree a man could call himself the master of his fate. Women, by contrast, were understood in terms of the way their lives were tethered to others, male and female. Sometimes this tethering was understood as chosen; sometimes it was imposed. Either way, it was understood as natural, a gendered default setting.
And yet from the very beginnings of American history there have been women who for various reasons found themselves in situations of perceived self-making. The wealthy widows of colonial Virginia, empowered by their inherited fortunes, are one example (though an example that also illustrates the way their autonomy was still circumscribed by the imperatives of marriage). Anne Hutchinson, articulating a libertarian theological vision far more challenging than that of Roger Williams, was another. The fictive Scarlet O’Hara, determined to maintain her family farm in the face of Yankee conquest, carried the torch of Jeffersonian yeomanry into the post-Civil War era. Madame C.J. Walker, an African American entrepreneur who built a cosmetics empire, became one of the great success stories of American business at the turn of the 20th century. These and other examples will salt the text, providing counterpoint and context for understanding the possibilities and limits of the self-made man beyond its stated gender boundaries.
So while each chapter of the book will have a temporal locus (Founding generation, Industrial Revolution, etc.) each will include multiple examples of self-made men across a series of occupational domains. They will also include examples of self-made women, and sometimes discuss the legacies of these figures in subsequent generations. A particular figure may also surface more than once to illustrate different aspects of self-made man iconography (Washington, for example, was a self-taught military leader as well as an exemplar of the rural gentry.) In so doing, the book will have a clear sense of structure and a narrative arc, but also a sense of texture. In effect, the self-made man will function as a kind of lens through which American history as a whole can be seen in a new and prismatic light.
To what end? At the simplest level, the purpose of this book is to recover a receding notion of our national identity and to restore its vitality by broadening it. Yet one may plausibly wonder if such recovery is all that useful, given the sometimes unsavory implications of self-made man mythology, like its tendency to inhibit, if not actually prevent, a communal approach toward solving communal problems and an impulse to blame victims for their own misfortunes. Yet a broader look at the historical record also shows that self-made men have been among the nation’s most imaginative and stalwart social reformers in terms of creating personal or protecting opportunity. (President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation with a very conscious understanding that he was making it possible for many future generations of self-made men.) A clear-eyed look at both the advantages and drawbacks of the self-made man mythology may become a useful instrument for charting a future course for ourselves and the nation at large.
Of course, because I’m still at an early stage of writing and research, there are as yet many unasked questions, let alone foreseeable answers. I will say, however, that I embark on this undertaking with a general sense of unease about the direction of the country. To some extent this is a matter of perceived collective denial, if not hypocrisy: while many of us consider the self-made paradigm dated and unrealistic, we continue to embrace many aspects of it. That might not be so bad – indeed, it is, as it often has been, an energizing notion that has spurred innovation and a salutary sense of confidence that generates self-fulfilling prophecies. But I suspect there are times when self-making becomes conflated with self-gratification. This concern is centuries old, and one reason why so much of the literature of the self-made man is rooted in religious discourse. The moral dimension of the equation has largely evaporated in the last century, in large measure because it has been rightfully viewed as unrealistic. Yet one must wonder, given the past and present of societies in which individual citizens are expected to orient their lives around something other than the self, how long the United States can maintain a sense of cohesion and purpose around the self-made man, especially in its narrowly economic formulation. It’s an idea that merits another searching look.