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Thursday, February 18, 2021

February 18, 2021: Non-Favorite American Myths: The Self-Made Man

[Given my overall 2021 goal of better remembering all of American history, for this year’s post-Valentine’s non-favorites series I wanted to highlight some of the historical myths of which I’m decidedly not a fan. Share your own non-favorites, historical and every other type, for a crowd-sourced weekend airing of grievances that’s always one of my favorite posts of the year!]

On how a national mythos develops, and the multiple reasons it’s so destructive.

I wrote in one of my early blog posts about the ubiquitous American narrative of the “self-made man” and how it (along with its principal complement, the “rags to riches” narrative) developed in particular in the Gilded Age. Certainly the self-made man narrative had been associated with prominent figures before then, from Ben Franklin to Andrew Jackson to Frederick Douglass and beyond. But as I wrote in that blog post, it was through such parallel, popular Gilded Age stories as the fictions of Horatio Alger and the sentimentalized biographies of men like Andrew Carnegie that these narratives moved from exemplary individual figures to truly collective national myths, images of an idealized American identity to which all Americans could and should (as presented in such bestselling and influential stories, along with the many others that extended and amplified them) aspire.

Those myths have endured into the 21st century, as we see through their (generally erroneous) applications to contemporary figures like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg (or, yes, our 45th president). The “generally erroneous” part really isn’t parenthetical, as one of the most destructive elements of the “self-made man” narrative is precisely its inaccuracy in most cases. John Steinbeck once argued that the poor in America continue to support policies and narratives that benefit only the wealthy because they see themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires,” and a key part of that delusion is the idea that any one of us can become just as successful as these iconic figures. Whereas the reality is that the single greatest indicator of elite status in America is inherited wealth, and that has been the case for a long, long time (if not to a significant degree throughout our history). None of which means that defining and working for our own vision of success aren’t valuable goals, just that we shouldn’t point to imagined myths of “self-making” as a key component of such goals.

Moreover, that mythic emphasis on individual self-making and success brings with it a corresponding and destructive de-emphasis on community. I don’t just mean that we fail to recognize the central role of communal support systems (not just family, but also education, government programs, and more) in the successes of such individuals, although that’s certainly the case. I also mean that these individualized myths make it harder for us to remember collective histories, including two that in many ways define the Gilded Age: the period’s deepening levels of inequality; and the role of activist movements from a variety of communities (labor, women’s rights, anti-lynching activists, immigration advocacy, Chinese Benevolent Associations, and many more) in challenging those inequities. At least part of the reason why we’ve had such difficulty collectively remembering those histories is precisely our focus on individual figures and stories, even in more critical ways (like the “robber baron” imagery). Changing that trend will thus require challenging national myths like the self-made man.

Last non-favorite tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Non-favorites (historical or otherwise) you’d share?

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