These have not been good days for the self-made man. The very phraseology offends: in an age when even corporate titans ritualistically affirm the value of teamwork, “self-made” sounds unseemly. “What’s wrong with the ‘self-made’ theory? Everything,” says Mike Myatt, a well-known CEO consultant, in a 2011 article in Forbes. “If your pride, ego, arrogance, insecurity, or ignorance keeps you from recognizing the contributions of others, then it’s time for a wake-up call,” he admonishes. In the 2012 book The Self-Made Myth, authors Brian Miller and Mike Lapham define their phrase as “the false assertion that individual and business success are entirely the result of the hard work, creativity, and sacrifice of the individual with little outside assistance.” And this doesn’t even begin to broach the difficulties of a phrase like “self-made man” in a post-feminist era, which any generic citation of “man” is at best a faux pas. Given the institutional, much less biological, realities that govern our lives, the very idea of the self-made man sounds like a contradiction in terms.
There are realms in which the concept has a bit more currency. It appears to be alive and well in the (male-dominated) Silicon Valley, for example, where the gold rush dream of the killer app lives on in the mythology of Gates and Zuckerberg. More than a half-century after the publication of Atlas Shrugged, libertarian-minded devotees of Ayn Rand, male and female, traverse the corridors of power in Washington. Yet even these exemplars have limited resonance. Gates’s Microsoft empire has long been dogged by murmurs of co-optation, if not theft, of others’ ideas; Zuckerberg’s background as the son of a Westchester dentist is not exactly the stuff of the rugged individualist. (That both men were Harvard dropouts is a pale modern equivalent.) Objectivists of the Rand school are avowedly a minority party; their self-worth depends upon it.
Perhaps nowhere is the concept of the self-made man in less repute than the modern Academy – or would be, if anyone were paying attention. It’s been decades since the subject was given much in the way of sustained scholarly attention. It last had its heyday in the mid-20th century, a time when intellectuals could speak of abstractions like “the American mind” relatively untroubled by the coming wave of particularity that would follow in the wake of the modern civil rights and women’s movements. So it was that Irvin Wyllie, a chancellor at the University of Wisconsin, would pen The Self-Made Man in America in 1954. University of Chicago professor John Cawelti followed with Apostles of the Self-Made Man in 1965. Other important books included Richard Weiss’s thematically similar The American Myth of Success (1969), Richard Huber’s The American Idea of Success (1971), and Kenneth Lynn’s The Dream of Success (1972). To put the matter in 21st century terms, this was the era of Mad Men, when a character like the fictive Don Draper of the much-admired cable television series could adopt a new identity amid the chaos of the Korean War and invent a whole new mystique for himself on Madison Avenue (until it fell apart as part of a complex set of social changes shorthanded by the term “the sixties”).
Tellingly, however, none of these books accepted the concept at face value, or believed it had much relevance in modern life even back then. Cawelti complained, in pale Marxist shades through which much of academic discourse in the last third of the twentieth century was filtered, that the concept distracted Americans from engaging in collective efforts for social reform. Those outside academe who tried to engage the idea unselfconsciously strained credibility. Business writer Isadore Barmash’s The Self-Made Man (1969), which profiled a set of largely forgettable business executives in the heyday of corporate conglomerate, reads like a cheap suit.
The self-made man was subjected to remarkably little formal scrutiny in the decades that followed. Huber’s American Dream of Success, reissued in 1987, is among the few still in print that still comes up on Amazon.com – hardly the last word in research, but a reasonable index of cultural currency. Variations on, or aspects of, the idea achieved some currency, among them books like Sacvan Bercovitch’s classic Puritan Origins of the American Self (1975) or Daniel Walker’s Howe’s Origins of the American Self (1995), which looked at self-making from the age of Franklin to the age of Lincoln. But they were also partial or oblique in engaging the idea directly.
The lack of focus on the subject is remarkable when one considers how intensely, and how long, the self-made man has been a central trope of the American experience.
It is generally agreed that the first use of the term to gain cultural currency came from Henry Clay – a politician Abraham Lincoln once described as his “beau ideal of a statesman” – in an oft-cited 1832 speech. Theater critic and essayist Charles Seymour published Self-Made Men, a collection of sixty profiles, in 1858. The following year, Frederick Douglass gave a speech with the same title that he delivered, in varied permutations, for the next third of a century. In 1872, Harriet Beecher Stowe published The Lives and Deeds of Our Self-Made Men, consisting chiefly of antislavery activists and Civil War heroes. In 1897, the newly ex-president Grover Cleveland published The Self-Made Man in American Life. In the coming century, the concept suffused into the marrow of American culture: Jay Gatsby, Charles Foster Kane, Willy Loman: their creators may not have used the term to describe these unforgettable characters, but the generations of audiences who were riveted by them never had any doubt what they, and their successes and failures, represented. It’s all the more ironic that the self-made man largely fell off the national radar after the 1960s when one considers how crucial self-making, and the rejection of institutional authority, have been to all social movements that followed the counterculture. In this regard, the Woodstock hippie and maverick banker agreed.
Next: varieties of the self-made man in U.S. history