Over at American History Now, the ever-prolific Jim Cullen has just written his second “exploratory piece” on the myth of the self-made man in American cultural history. This project seems to be right up Cullen’s alley (much like his studies of Bruce Springsteen, Civil War memory, and the American Dream) and I hope his work moves from “exploratory” to a full-blown book project.
In his first post, “The Self-Made Man in Hiding,” he traces the perception of the “self-made man” in the Silicon Valley, among the followers of Ayn Rand, and in the Academy. Here is a taste:
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 currently came from Henry Clay–a politician…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.
In Cullen’s second post, “More Than Just the Benjamins,” he argues that the conception of the “self-made man” was a “good deal broader than business or politics.” He connects this idea to the lives and work of people like Joel Osteen, Bruce Springsteen, and Vito Corleone.
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.