Few myths in American history hold as strongly as the one of the self-made man. You know the one. He is a rugged individual, out there by himself, roaming the country living by his own moral code. But how did the myth take shape? Where did it come from? And, is there any truth to it?
The myth took on a new form in the early 20th century with Horatio Alger's tales of talented youths succeeding through "luck and pluck".
Ayn Rand took the concept to it's illogical conclusion with architect Howard Roark, who destroys what he can't control.
Much was made of the loner hero in the late 19th and 20th centuries. American culture found itself in the thrall of industrialism, waves of immigration, and the realization that the nation had grown far beyond it's original boundaries. Authors, historians, and philosophers attempted to make sense of this new world and to find an anchor point in the past upon which to moor the predominant culture.
“The Significance of the Frontier in American History”
"The Significance of the Frontier in American History" was presented by Frederick Jackson Turner at a special meeting of the American Historical Association at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The "Frontier Thesis" states that the existence and settlement of the frontier is the defining characteristic of the American character.
"that coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and acquisitiveness; that practical inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things... that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism"Turner lamented the closing of the frontier as the end of the first chapter of American history. In 1890, the US Census Bureau declared the end of a contiguous line of frontier territory. According to Turner, the frontier was instrumental in promoting individualistic democracy. He surmised that individuals who relied on their own wits and strength would reject the exercise of centralized political power.
Years later, the "frontier thesis" has heavily criticized by historians. Among the criticisms of the thesis, revisionist historians point to the importance of cooperation and community, the role of the US Army in "taming" the West, and the part played by corporate railroads and cattle operations.
It is almost impossible to grow up in the US and not be familiar with the image of the cowboy. The cowboy has existed as a popular figure in the media since before the Census Bureau declared the frontier closed.
It is important to remember, though, that cowboys were generally low-level employees of sometimes foreign-owned cattle corporations.
You read that right. Cowboys may have been working class heros, but they were very rarely rugged loners out on the range for themselves. They drew a paycheck just like everyone else.
The Self Made Man Moves From the Frontier to the City
The self made man archetype was resurrected as Americans began moving from the farm to the city. Instead of a focus on community, the new paradigm placed individual achievement above the welfare of the community.
In this new paradigm, the individual was encouraged to "pull oneself up by the bootstraps". This new narrative helped to bridge the Puritan ethic of an earlier time to the new industrial Age.
Horatio Alger began writing dime novels in 1867. This period coincides with the advent of industrialization and movement to cities after the Civil War. Alger's stories took place in cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston.
Alger's books about boys who lived clean lives and did the right things flew off the shelves. The stories involved virtuous young men who rose from poverty to wealth. In the Alger archetype, young men who exhibited such virtue were rescued from obscure poverty and rewarded with comfortable lives. The rise was attributed to "luck and pluck".
Note the importance of the interlocutor in the Alger stories. Very often, it was a rich patron who noticed the young man and elevated him to a status befitting his virtue and hard work.
Alger's stories were immensely popular in their day and the concept is still with us, even though the majority of his books are out of print. The time period during which Alger wrote was known as the "Gilded Age", made famous for the "Robber Barons" who amassed great wealth and power in steel, railroads, and other pursuits. Alger both made the rich and powerful palatable and allowed the less fortunate to dream of reaching such heights themselves.
On the Screen
"I don't ask for help, or do I give it."Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead is a paean to the power of the individual. The hero, Howard Roark, is an architect who rejects conformity for his own values and ideals. The plot centers on a building site that Roark blows up because the architect bastardized his original plans.
"I'm selfish? - is that what they say? It's true I live for the judgment of my own mind and for my own sake."The core of Rand's novel, and of her philosophy of Objectivism, is that the creative 'self' is more important than the denial of 'self' for the sake of others. For Roark, the desire to not capitulate to the desires of the masses is the noble calling, even if it requires rejecting potential material gain.
Gary Cooper, one of the great embodiments of individualism on the silver screen, brought the role of Howard Roark to life in King Vidor's 1949 film adaptation of the novel. It flopped at the box office and is not remembered well. Regardless, Howard Roark is second only to John Galt in the pantheon of Randian heros.
"I don't mind if you don't like my manners, I don't like them myself. They are pretty bad. I grieve over them on long winter evenings."The self made, loner hero pops up again in the persona of the private detective in the noir genre popular in the 1940s and 50s and revived from time to time.
Cool Hand Luke
"Yeah, that's what I thought. I guess I'm pretty tough to deal with, huh? A hard case. "Sometimes, the self made man pops up as an anti-hero yet the archetype remains much the same.
"Yeah. I guess I gotta find my own way. "
The Lone Ranger
Readers of a certain age will remember the Lone Ranger as a comic, a television serial, and even a movie. They will also remember his faithful sidekick Tonto. Hey, at least the creators of the character recognized that Native Americans had something to do with westward expansion.
Of course Tonto embodied another archetypal character, the "Noble Savage", popularized by James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales. That archetype will have to be detailed by other diarists here who may be more qualified to take on the task.
The Lone Ranger was, in fact, not alone. The name comes from the idea that he is the last of the Texas Rangers. Without the efforts of Tonto, the Lone Ranger would likely not have survived his numerous adventures.
And in a galaxy far, far, away ...
"I'm Luke Skywalker. I'm here to rescue you!"
"It's not impossible. I used to shoot womprats with my T16 back home. They were no bigger than two meters."
"If I don't make it back, you're the only hope for the Alliance."Above is Luke Skywalker, hero of the Rebel Alliance. To the right is John Wayne's Ethan Edwards, a Civil War vet who embarks to find a niece who has been kidnapped in The Searchers.
The shot of Wayne comes near the end of the film. Edwards, the hero of the film, has saved a member of the community but cannot enter through the door and join that community.
George Lucas took many of the myths of the American frontier, as depicted in the movies of his youth, and translated them into Star Wars.
Of course, all of the heros of that movie work together, for the Rebel Alliance. Not even the poetically named Han Solo worked alone. Before the story begins, he has Chewbacca as his Tonto and, by the end of the saga, he is a critical part of the alliance.