The “Self-Made Man’” is an allegory borne of free market aspirations and our attraction to the possibility of becoming something from nothing. Swansburg’s Slate piece, however, highlights the myth’s thorniness. Americans love a yarn, and the Self Made Man Myth (SMMM) is one of our most dangerous; his article attempts to relieve us of our idealism about the correlation between scrappiness and success. Even Oscar-nominated paean to the rags-to-riches narrative, Cinderella Man, is in on the artifice. “It’s no joke, pal,” says a character, as Depression-era New York City caves in around pugilistic family man and hero, James Braddock. “People die in fairy tales all the time.”
Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism summarizes the insidious relationship between morality and material wealth in the United States. Capitalism is influenced, and intertwined with, religious ideology; according to Weber, the system’s “dominated by the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose... economic acquisition is no longer subordinated to man as the means for the satisfaction of his material needs. This reversal of what we should call the natural relationship, so irrational from a naïve point of view… expresses a type of feeling which is closely connected with certain religious ideas.” Weber introduces Ben Franklin (a Swansburg SMM) as early proponent of the idea that “the earning of money within the modern economic order is, so long as it is done legally, the result and the expression of virtue and proficiency in a calling.” He cites Franklin’s autobiography and the entrepreneur’s regurgitation of Biblical law: “’Seest thou a man diligent in his business? He shall stand before kings.’” Unfortunately, the pious, determined entrepreneur is Dr. Jekyll to a paradoxical Mr. Hyde: if someone’s poor, it’s due to his or her laziness and gluttony. This is a major design flaw of the SMMM, amongst the many others Swansburg’s subjects illustrate.
He opens the conversation about this faulty American allegory with the bootstrap metaphor: Pulling oneself up by them is actually impossible. The original meaning, steeped in sarcasm, was “a crackpot inventor’s attempt to build a perpetual motion machine." It’s one of several pointed attempts to shake us from our cinematic ideas about who can succeed.
Swansburg profiles Andrew Carnegie, an example of the SMMM that revealed “mounting ambivalence” towards its legitimacy. A man who “ruthlessly fought to depress wages and extend hours at his steel mills, [while] writing passionately about the need to administer to the community,” Carnegie made a fortune off practices he decried publicly, lauding that bootstraps ethos while ignoring his own workers’ plight. Carnegie is pure fiction, from his interaction with T.T. Woodruff to his coded condescension about mobility. “’If by chance the professional sweeper is absent any morning,” he told aspiring captains of industry, “the boy who has the future partner in him will not hesitate to try his hand at the broom.’” It’s a threat disguised as free market platitudes. If you don’t want your 14-hour Thanksgiving shift at Walmart, someone else surely will.
This sentiment is a modern Classical Liberalist’s get-out-of-jail-free card for corporations to pay low wages, create deplorable conditions and prevent upward mobility. Recently, sandwich empire Jimmy John’s forced all employees (including those sweepers Carnegie venerates) to sign a noncompetition agreement stating employees can’t work for “any business which derives more than 10% of its revenue from selling submarine, hero-type, deli-style, pita and/or wrapped or rolled sandwiches” within three miles of a Jimmy John’s for two years or risk litigation. Efforts like this are designed to frighten a minimum-wage worker to stay put, for fear of being sued or unable to find other employment. Intimidation tactics like these were modeled by “SMM” Carnegie (who, like Jimmy John’s, also crushed unionization attempts).
The case of Horatio Alger speaks to the power of cognitive dissonance around the SMMM by lionizing a pedophile as literary giant and relatable, redemptive son of a gun. Alger, apparently, had only a small hand in shaping his own myth, one based in our attraction to the idea you don’t have to do good to do well. Instead of piety and hard work (mandatory for a SMM like Franklin), the public was drawn to Ragged Dick’s ascent due to “good luck and the good offices of a wealthy benefactor.” We have an appetite for seeing characters like Dick go from dockside-drinking depravity to respectability without trying very hard; given the opportunity, it’s how most of us would do it post-recession. One could compare Alger/Dick’s bad boy arcs to the NFL’s valorization of millionaire victimizers like Michael Vick (dogs), Ben Roethlisberger (women) and Ray Lewis (New Year’s Eve revelers). Lewis, from a background not unlike an Alger protagonist, had an NFL finale that baffled a few people. “His teammates, many of whom like Michael Oher (of The Blind Side fame) come from deprived backgrounds, have taken his message [of redemption] to heart,” wrote USA Today Paul Steinberg of the “the hypnotic trance“ in which Lewis placed his teammates, the public and himself.[v] NBC Sports dissected his martyr-like word salad when asked what he’d tell his victims’ families: “‘It’s simple, you know,’ Lewis said. ‘God has never made a mistake. That’s just who He is, you see? To the family, if you knew — if you really knew — the way God works, He don’t use people who commits anything like that for His glory.’” It’s a profitable, childishly scripted narrative, but so is Ragged Dick.
Swansburg’s Nasty Gal profile explores feminist grit and flexibility of the Self-Made “Man” vernacular. Sophia Amoruso, resident “Girlboss,” is positioned antithetically to Lean In ‘s Sheryl Sandberg. By “proudly holding up her scrappy entrepreneurialism as a contrast to Sandberg’s path of privilege from Harvard to the Treasury Department to the C-suites of Google and Facebook,” it’s tough to fault the one woman in the narrative. But just as “Amoruso counsels the future girlboss to emulate her …and her aversion to debt” the message is still “coming from the purveyor of $360 stiletto-heeled boots.” The Nasty Girl website’s overwhelming exclusivity contrasts with the SMMM’s modest, relatable values. The clothes are prohibitively expensive, the models are thin and white and it takes six pages on the blog to see a single woman of color. Imagine the effect on young women of color, conspicuously absent in Swansburg’s piece and the majority of American media, if Amoruso wielded her capital to approach women-run industries with intersectionality and diversity. It’s the same complaint - privileged dimness- held against Lena Dunham, our current literary/television IT Girl and NastyGal spokeswoman. “It is not so wrong to craft an exclusively white world- certainly a significant portion of America lives in one,” Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in The Atlantic. “What is wrong is for power-brokers to pretend that no other worlds exists.” [viii] Will we ever see a Self Made (Trans, Queer, Black, Wo)Man? Shouldn’t we?
Indeed, right as Swansburg begins to expand the image of the SMMM, the piece returns to his father- a standard issue SMM model. However, Swansburg is well aware of the story’s illusion, and the historical holes poked in it. These stories are vital for us, providing vision and hope. In a struggling capitalist economy with few jobs, divisive leadership and a widening gulf between rich and poor, we need aspiration. We need these fairy tales.
We know how the Grimm ones usually ended, though.