The following post is part of a series on the rise and fall of the self-made man in American culture.
The discussion of the self-made man in this series has been dominated by political figures. In large measure, that’s because I see the predominant vision of the self-made man in this era of U.S. history as a decisively civic one, and politicians are typically in the business of making, and acting upon, public-sector arguments. But other versions of the self-made man were thriving, much in the way that there were alternatives to the largely religious vision of the seventeenth century, or the agrarian ones of the eighteenth. (Remember that Benjamin Franklin played the role of a politician – among many others – over the course of his eighteenth century life.) But one of the truly striking aspects of the self-made man in the early nineteenth century was the way it led people working in arenas that were not necessarily in the public sector to cast their work in such terms.
Take artists and intellectuals. In an important sense, self-making is a credential for such people: whatever their backgrounds, they don’t gain recognition unless they can somehow carve out a space (aesthetic, ideological, or otherwise) they can call their own. Until the middle decades of the nineteenth century, they operated in the shadow of British and European models. After that, though, they became American. Which, to a great extent, involved the paradoxical assertion of individualism – a term coined by Frenchman Alexis de Tocquville after a visit to the United States in 1831-32 – as a national trait.
There’s no better illustration of this cultural development than Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson was the to nineteenth century was Bob Dylan was to the twentieth: a celebrity rock star whose elliptical words were dissected with passionate enthusiasm by generations of devotees. Today Emerson is remembered principally as an essayist, but in his own day he was celebrated as a poet, and his periodic tours packed houses and allowed him to make a living on the basis of his writings.
Which is not to say he ever saw himself as a man who earned a paycheck. Born in 1803 as the descendant of generations of Puritan ministers (his grandfather was a chaplain for the rebels during the American Revolution), Emerson was educated at the elite Boston Latin School and Harvard and ordained as a Unitarian minister. He took over the pulpit of the Second Church of Boston, which dated back to the early seventeenth century, and commanded a princely salary. But following the death of his first wife in 1831, he grew increasingly disaffected with his church, and with organized religion generally. His first major essay, “Nature” (1836), published anonymously, became the manifesto of the Transcendentalist movement in the United States, part of a broader cultural movement (including the painters of the Hudson River School, for example), placing primacy on the natural world as a source of inspiration. Emerson’s declaration of independence is widely considered his Harvard commencement address of 1837, “The American Scholar,” in which he exhorted his audience to forge an original relationship to the world. “Books are fine for a scholar’s idle times,” he asserted. “When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men’s transcripts of their readings.” (Bold as this was, it carried with it echoes of the Puritans, who revered the Bible but nevertheless placed primacy on the individual conscience.)
Emerson’s signature statement on the importance of the self-made man in its broadest formulations was “Self-Reliance,” a text he delivered in lectures before its first publication in 1841. “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string,” he exhorted. Other lines resound through history like song lyrics: “Whoso would be a man, must be a non-comformist”: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”; “Your goodness must have some edge to it.” Insofar as self-making is an act of discipline, Emerson asserts, it’s less one of preparation or diligence than a sheer force of will to cut through the Gordian knot of tradition and duty. There’s something thrilling about this, but something mystifying, too: how does one will oneself to will? Emerson’s critics at the time and ever since have wondered whether there was less to his pronouncements than met his (transcendental) eyeball.
Such suspicions were reinforced by Emerson’s tendency to sidestep the raging political disputes of the time. “If an angry bigot assumes this bountiful cause of Abolition, and comes to me with the latest news from Barbadoes, why should I not say to him, ‘Go love thy infant; love thy woodchopper; be good-natured and modest; have that grace; and never varnish your hard, uncharitable ambition with this incredible tenderness for black folk a thousand miles off,” he asks in “Self-Reliance.” Over a century and a half later, we recognize the type Emerson criticizes – crusaders for social justice who have a curious blindspot for the quotidian realities of their lives and ours. But it requires a real squint to see abolitionists as bigots, particularly since many of the outrages of Emerson’s time were a good deal closer than a thousand miles away. He would eventually come around the cause, but a strong vein of what seems like caution seemed to mark his politics.
Some of his acolytes were less cautious. His cranky young friend Henry David Thoreau rented land from Emerson, putting up the small cheap cabin that allowed him to write Walden (1854). Like Emerson, there was a curiously insistent public thrust to Thoreau’s private life, typified by his more militant variety of antislavery as expressed in the famous essay (now known as “Civil Disobedience”) that landed him in jail for refusing to pay his taxes in protest over the Mexican War, as well as his 1854 essay “Slavery in Massachusetts,” in which he excoriated the complacency of his fellow New Englanders on the issue. Thoreau’s insistence on living a simple life had an important component of self-made ideology embedded in it; he regarded relying on others as a compromise of an essential American freedom (even if he relied on his mother and sister to do his laundry for him).
Next: Walt Whitman, self-made everyman