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Friday, October 14, 2011

October 14, 2011: Gilded Age Addendum

In calling the robber baron image and the Gospel of Wealth concept the two most prominent narratives attached to Gilded Age magnates, I left out a third, equally significant such narrative: the self-made man. While the narrative had been present in American culture since at least Ben Franklin’s self-definitions and national image, and had gained a great deal of steam with the narratives about both Andrew Jackson and Abe Lincoln in the mid-19th century, there’s no question that it was in the Gilded Age that its status as one of our defining American narratives was truly cemented; that cementing was due in significant measure to the phenomenally popular novels of Horatio Alger, whose nearly identical protagonists were all variations of the self-made man narrative, but likewise found consistent validation in the accounts (both autobiographical and from outside views/stories) of the self-making through which the Gilded Age magnates had risen to their high status.

There’s a lot of AmericanStudies work to be done (and that has been done) on the self-made man narrative, but I mention it here because of one of its principal roles: in making extreme wealth palatable, and even attractive and noble, to the mass of Americans who do not and are likely never going to possess it. It often mystifies me how a reprehensible, sleazy, multiple-bankruptcy-suffering fool like Donald Trump can become an icon and idol; but my mystification is due in part to my knowledge of how Trump gained the vast majority of his fortune: the way many of the wealthiest Americans (such as current presidential candidate Mitt Romney) do, by inheriting it. The national narratives about men like Trump and Romney, on the other hand, emphasize their resumes, their business savvy, their self-making—thus making these obscenely wealthy figures into both impressive models and, at least implicitly, examples that could be followed in our own paths to obscene wealth.
Journalist and political writer Thomas Frank famously asked, in regard to the question of why working class Americans so often seem to vote against their own self-interest and in favor of the interests of the wealthy, What’s the Matter with Kansas? I read today a daily email from the official site—a New England ASA email account receives those daily emails, and the AmericanStudier in me is obligated to read them, even at the risk of nausea and vomiting—in which that ostensibly working-class, populist organization similarly went to great lengths to defend the nation’s richest 1% against the Occupy Wall Street movement. My first reaction in reading the email was quite similar to Frank’s; my second was to remember the big money groups and individuals (like the Koch Brothers) that have funded many of the Tea Party’s efforts. But my third was to recall the role of the self-made man narrative in the Gilded Age, and down to our contemporary moment—to make us admire and aspire to be precisely those Americans who are, in many ways, making the national dreams of financial success or even stability more difficult for many of their fellow countrymen to attain.

More this weekend,

PS. Three links to start with:
1)      The Gilded Age’s only two-term president, Grover Cleveland, does his part to build the self-made man narrative:

2)       Info on Frank’s book:

3)      OPEN: What do you think?

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