To a great degree, the erasure of the self-made man from common parlance reflects a shared understanding – or, more accurately, a shared misunderstanding – on the part of defenders and critics alike. This involved a narrowing of the concept to a single archetype: the businessman. Even those who invoked the self-made man in politics almost always credentialed themselves as self-made in the realm of commerce (which has been standard operating procedure in for Republicans in particular). Those who did not, like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, were not taken seriously as such by their opponents or particularly cherished as such even by many of their supporters. I’d venture to say Obama’s wonky credentials and slightly noblesse oblige background as a community organizer excites his core liberal supporters more than the fact his mother spent time on food stamps.
Yet even a cursory immersion in seventeenth, eighteenth, or nineteenth century U.S. history suggests that the conception of the self-made man was a good deal broader than business or politics. Yes, of course, John D. Rockefeller was considered an exemplar of the self-made man. But so Ralph Waldo Emerson. Benjamin Franklin is widely considered the patron saint of American capitalism. But he was also a self-made scientist, diplomat, and writer. The concept expands far beyond commerce to include the clergy (Charles Grandison Finney to Norman Vincent Peale), the military (Andrew Jackson to George Patton), and other domains.
The other problem with the prevailing economic conception of the self-made man is that it obscures changes in the nature of U.S. capitalism over 250 years. Initially, such capitalism was agricultural, represented by the self-sufficient farmer. Though he is not typically remembered on such a basis, this was an important part of George Washington’s identity and the basis of a fortune that came from far-sighted independence from mono-crop cultivation and British finance. The spokesman for the self-made man as farmer was Thomas Jefferson, who famously described the autonomous yeoman (who may or may not have owned slaves) as those “whose breasts [God] has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.” Such figures were sometimes imagined as operating outside a global trade market, but it has been a long time since anyone has taken that idea very seriously. Nor do I.
By the late eighteenth century, a competing notion of the self-made man emerged, of which Franklin was widely – and properly – viewed as emblematic. This was a form of capitalism that was mercantile: a pre-industrial, but non-agrarian, basis of wealth creation. This was the self-made man as craftsman, merchant, and eventually manufacturer, albeit manufacturer of the small-scale sort. Such a vision was powerful and durable, so much so that it persisted long after it had been effectively become obsolete. As many scholars of novelist Horatio Alger have noted, his books for boys peddled an early 19th century mercantile vision in an era that had long since been overtaken by late 19th century industrial capitalism.
Indeed, it is this phase – the phase of the industry titan, stretching from Andrew Carnegie through Henry Ford – that more than any other has survived most vividly in the American imagination. This was the self-made man as master of mass production: steel, oil, cars. Though sometimes a subject of scorn, even hatred in their day, Americans on the whole were fascinated by such figures and sought to emulate them – again, long after capitalism had moved on to a new phase.
The next phase, stretching between the 1920s and the 1970s, posed more of a problem for the myth of the self-made man. This was the age of managerial capitalism, in which values like planning, collaboration and coordination were central. In such an environment, the valorization of the self-made man centered on the corporate executive. Perhaps the most vivid examples of the archetype were the so-called movie moguls, with names like Fox and Warner and Disney, who created – but, more decisively in terms of their legacies, managed – enterprises in which they were able to generate a mystique of creativity. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished 1940 novel The Last Tycoon, inspired by the career of cinema legend Irving Thalberg, vividly evokes this particular variation on the self-made man.
The closing decades of the twentieth century witnessed a new valorization of the individual entrepreneur, from Sam Walton to Mark Zuckerberg, tirelessly upheld by boosters as role models worthy of emulation. To a great extent this post-industrial phase of U.S. capitalism focused more on services and consumption rather than production. Because of the increasing sophistication of the marketplace, the self-made archetype abandoned the autodidactic model of earlier times and avowedly embraced formal education as a means of upward mobility (even if mass access to such an education increasingly became a fantasy along the lines of an Alger character becoming a pastoral merchant in an industrial age).
I’ve made some effort to delineate phases in the economic model of the self-made man as part of a larger point that even this perceived dominant variation of the myth was itself subject to shifting currents and emphases and often marked by cultural lag. But again, my larger point is that just as multiple versions of the self-made man jostled within the realm of commerce, multiple versions jostled outside it as well. At any given moment, an economic version, a political version, and a cultural version, among many others, were available and competing for allegiance in a U.S. population whose diversity whose attention united by little else. At the very moment Mark Zuckerberg was embodying the self-made myth of entrepreneurial pluck, Bruce Springsteen was tapping its cultural power and the evangelical minister Joel Osteen was preaching an ethos of self-help that burgeoned into a religious media empire.
The fact that in an earlier age these men would have been explicitly lionized as self-made does not necessarily mean they (or their predecessors) began with nothing. As noted, Zuckerberg came from a background that was thoroughly bourgeois; Springsteen’s evocatively named hometown of Freehold was more suburban than ghetto; Osteen inherited the pastorate whose size he trebled. They were nevertheless seen, not altogether wrongly, as people who realized objectives that initially seemed unlikely and attributed to their unique talents. Luck was sometimes mentioned, though almost always as a secondary consideration. Almost never in American life has success been considered arbitrary; the implications of such an idea were too troubling to fully embrace.
Which is not to say that the honor rendered a self-made man was always rooted on a moral basis. For every Carnegie or Rockefeller who invoked a moral claim and accepted a moral obligation, there were scoundrels like the railroad magnate Jim Fisk, who was accepted, even honored celebrated, as such. Jessie James, Bonnie & Clyde, Vito Corleone, Tupac Shakur, Tony Soprano: the pantheon of self-made men has a full gallery of rogues, real and imagined (even if there was always some form of code of honor among such thieves, very often one of race or ethnicity that served as a foil for the white, Anglo-Saxon foundation of U.S. self-made mythology).