click here Rather than shrink from such lofty expectations, Franklin embraced them, and, in a grinning gesture of marketing shrewdness, inserted the text of the letter between the first two parts of his memoir. Written in a little over a week when the year-old Franklin was taking a break from traveling the British Isles, collecting honors and trying to quell the growing hubbub between England and her colonies, the first of these sections would become the most famous part of the Autobiography.
The story begins in Boston, familiarly enough, with an ambitious father who longed for a better life for his son. In this instance, that meant better than the putrid profession of a tallow chandler, the vocation to which Josiah Franklin had dedicated himself. He was only 12 years old, and if he felt newly enrolled in the school of hard knocks, it was because they were generously applied by his older brother James, the proprietor of the printing house where he apprenticed. Understandably, the two did not get along well, and James grew increasingly impatient with his brother, whose genius, by turns, enriched and embarrassed him.
In Philadelphia, Franklin eventually became the proprietor of his own printing house, intent on securing his reputation as a tradesman. Franklin was just 22 and his greatest successes were all still before him, but as far as future generations would be concerned, the legend of the colonial upstart was largely complete.
When an ailing Franklin put down his quill once and for all sometime around Christmas of , what he had accomplished only took readers through his early 50s. Despite being a truncated account, the book was a sensation. Over the course of the 19th-century, the Autobiography became a book of wisdom for working people, a model for new Americans, and a companion piece to the Bible in some grammar schools intent on moral instruction. He put forth an ideal of restraint and industriousness. Here are virtues four through six:.
Taken together, they describe a young businessman who was both exceptionally driven and entirely abstemious, one who always preferred to reinvest his earnings rather than enjoy them. As a template for capitalism, the example provided by the Autobiography made commercial success not just consistent with personal restraint, but contingent on it. Scott Fitzgerald had hinted at this before, near the end of The Great Gatsby.
The idea intrigued him; he decided to give it a try. James agreed, and was happy for the savings. Benjamin, meanwhile, taught himself a few simple vegetarian recipes boiled potato, hasty pudding and soon discovered that he could get by on half the sum his brother was paying him. Franklin invested the remaining money in books to feed his hungry mind.
The story itself, and the deceptively matter-of-fact way in which Franklin relates it, testifies to his sly literary gifts, and to his knack for the 18 th -century equivalent of the humblebrag. The story of the self-made man begins with Franklin. Franklin, the tenth son of a Boston candle-maker, became a world-famous scientist, an influential patriot and diplomat, and, not least, a wealthy man of business.
In the Autobiography , Franklin offered an irresistible account of his unlikely path to prosperity, one that would thrill later generations even as they misinterpreted it.
For Franklin, succeeding in business had been a means to an end. The wealth he accumulated freed him to devote himself to loftier endeavors: science, public service, the pursuit of moral perfection.
Subsequent eds. Murrey, Christopher J. He became a manager of the newspaper, but then abruptly moved to Philadelphia in after disagreements with his brother. Franklin thought they might be electrical in nature, and suggested that conditions in the upper atmosphere might be responsible. When the Unites States came to be he badgered the French government to support the colonies with troops and skillfully used an age-old European grudge to our favor. Washington: Great
Finding no printing work in New York, Franklin pushed on to Philadelphia. With no room in his pockets thanks to the spare hosiery, Franklin walks back up Market Street, a giant roll under each arm, noshing on the third. In his memoir, the successful 19 th -century clock-maker Chauncey Jerome tried to one-up Franklin by wandering around New Haven on his first day in the city while carrying a pile of clothing, bread, and some cheese.
When Franklin needed to replenish his stocks of paper, he would run the errand himself, pushing the reams down the street in a wheelbarrow to advertise his dedication to his trade. The book quickly found a readership among Americans eager to take advantage of the exploding economic opportunities in the new republic.
A great story of self-making had arrived at precisely the moment when Americans were primed to hear it. And the books really did inspire. Wyllie notes that Thomas Mellon, the founder of the eponymous banking fortune, was encouraged to leave his family farm by the Autobiography , which he read in , at age Franklin was undoubtedly proud of his rise from obscurity. Franklin, Printer. One of the 13 virtues Franklin had aspired to was humility though, by his own admission, he struggled with this one mightily ; as Wood notes, Franklin took pains in his memoirs to describe his rise to prominence in unassuming terms.
Franklin the industrious printer and self-made man had became a figure of American adoration. Though Lawrence is not well-remembered today, the dry goods merchant was a fixture of the success literature of the mid th century, when authors sought to satisfy the growing demand for stories about self-made men. Lawrence apprenticed with a merchant whose clerks were in the habit of drinking, each forenoon, a mixture of rum, raisins, sugar, and nutmeg. As for food, Lawrence took only bread and water, the quantities of which he measured on a scale he kept on his desk. His popularity among antebellum success writers was also a function of his religious rectitude.
Here, Franklin had posed a challenge for the promoters of the self-made ideal: Though virtuous, Franklin was a youthful skeptic, a Deist, and never one for churchgoing. Weems wrote a highly fictionalized life of Franklin , which transformed him into a loyal disciple of Christ. Even by the standards of the time it was a devastating toll. Yet Lawrence begins with a remarkable diary entry, in which he interprets the losses as a test of his faith and a challenge for the new year.
For all the opportunity it afforded young men, the economic boom also brought temptation, especially for those ingenuous boys leaving behind the purity of the country for the fleshpots of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Only a man as righteous as Amos Lawrence could withstand such temptations. And withstand them he did—or at least avoided them. Thayer admiringly quotes a delicately worded letter in which Lawrence recalled his first days in the city. By the middle of the 19 th century, the self-made man often was less a paragon of entrepreneurial ambition than a bulwark of virtue.
Lawrence worked hard, kept good books, and was trustworthy, so naturally his business thrived. As Scott A. But here, too, the self-made ideal proved useful: It functioned in this period as an explanation for success and for failure. Even a man as charitable as Amos Lawrence had little sympathy for those who lacked his moral fiber, drawing a straight line from their spiritual failing to their worldly destitution.
When he first moved to Boston, he asked the widow with whom he boarded to declare an hour of silence after supper for those who chose to study. The widow agreed. In the 19 th century, the self-made man had an evil twin: the confidence man. Americans had to be on guard against those who sought to enrich themselves by preying upon the gullibility and greed of others. If any man promised to enrich himself or others minus the hard-work part of the equation, he was in all likelihood a charlatan.
As the ship chugs down river, he appears in guise after guise, relieving his fellow passengers of their money while decrying the sad decline of trust among men. Melville offers a nightmare vision of the self-made success story. Unlike Benjamin Franklin, the runaway who reinvents himself as a printer, scientist, and statesman, or Amos Lawrence, the farm boy turned merchant prince, the confidence man remakes himself to fleece his next target.
Melville turned the promise of American capitalism into a threat. Horatio Alger Jr. But the man whose name would become synonymous with the rags-to-riches story did reinvent himself as a means to leave behind a sordid past. Neither the man nor his fiction are what they seem to be. Alger was born in and grew up in Chelsea, Massachusetts. His father was the minister of the First Congregational Church, a parish that had been organized by Cotton Mather.
Alger moved to New York to seek his new life. No reports of evil deeds surfaced from these boys; on the contrary, they felt a strong allegiance to their patron. Alger and his wards formed a symbiotic relationship. He provided them a refuge from the streets, and they offered up the details of their difficult lives, which Alger turned into the fiction that brought him the publishing success that had earlier eluded him.
In , he published Ragged Dick , the first novel to follow what would soon be recognized as the Horatio Alger formula and undoubtedly his best. The title character is a wise-cracking bootblack who, despite some bad habits smoking, swearing, theatergoing is in essence a reputable boy stuck in disreputable circumstances. We think we know what comes next: Through hard work and perseverance, Ragged Dick emerges from destitution into a well-deserved fortune.
What is surprising is that the books remained popular for as long as they did. But it was nothing compared to what was to come. There are various theories as to why Alger enjoyed such posthumous regard. Whereas in his own time Alger was credited with inventing a moral hero who becomes modestly successful, during the early years [of the 20 th century] he seemed to have invented a successful hero who is modestly moral.
It was only later still, when readers stopped reading Alger altogether and moved on to new avatars of the self-made man, that a hazy memory of his adumbrated fictions led Americans to make his name a shorthand for a rags-to-riches story that Alger neither lived nor told. About 25 at the time, Carnegie was working as an assistant to Tom Scott , who would eventually rise to the presidency of the powerful Pennsylvania Railroad and was currently serving as its superintendent.
The farmer-looking man, who was carrying a mysterious green bag, had been told that Carnegie worked for the railroad, and he asked the young man for a moment of his time. Carnegie assented, and the man produced from his green bag a small model of his invention: the sleeper car. Scott at once upon my return. I could not get that sleeping-car idea out of my mind. T Woodruff, the inventor, who was so overjoyed with the news that he offered the young man an eighth interest in his company. The young man having proven his kindness, and his ability to recognize and facilitate a promising venture, the older gentleman rewards him with an act of largesse.
Carnegie, the immigrant son of a failed weaver, was set on the path to prosperity by the sturdy Alger formula: luck and pluck. Edgar Thomson demanded a kickback, in the form of partial ownership of the company. For his troubles, Andy was given a few shares himself. Throughout the Gilded Age, the lofty ideals of self-made manhood would sit uncomfortably beside the realities of an industrial economy that threatened to expose economic mobility as a myth.
On the one hand, the two richest men in America, Carnegie and John D. They have but to master the knack of economy, thrift, honesty, and perseverance, and success is theirs. Carnegie goes on in his lecture to inveigh against the practice of speculation. In this climate, the self-made man started to look more villainous than heroic. John Cawelti points to T. In terms of financial accumulation, the former are infinitely more successful. Other men turned to the self-made captains of industry for help. Thousands of men and women, though they were usually writing on behalf of their husbands wrote to Rockefeller and Carnegie seeking a job or financial assistance, and their letters reveal a mounting ambivalence about the self-made mythology.
Neither Raymond nor Osborne had given up on the values that supposedly led to self-made success, but they argued that those values alone were proving insufficient to get ahead. The triumphant narrative of the self-made man needed to adapt its message to these more parlous times.
A new self-made man emerged, one whom Benjamin Franklin and Amos Lawrence might have been frightened to behold. John Graham was an exemplar of the new bootstrapping industrialist, no less so for being the invention of George Horace Lorimer, the editor of the Saturday Evening Post. In just the first few letters, Graham is forced to disabuse his son of the idea of attending graduate school, embarking on a European tour, and writing letters to young women.
Never mind the young ladies, in other words—the pork business should give your equipment charge enough. And nothing should get in the way of landing the account. As for the dwindling number of opportunities in America, the Gilded Age defenders of the self-made ideal had an answer to that charge, too: Men who failed to find opportunity were looking in the wrong places. Conwell told his audience that there were acres of diamonds in their backyards as well—they just needed to stop complaining and start digging.
Conwell reversed the order of operations. It was the duty, Carnegie wrote, of wealthy men to see that their money was put to good public use. The Gospel of Wealth was at once a grand philanthropic creed and a transparent rationalization of the system that had concentrated such vast resources in the hands of just a few men.
Here was Carnegie, who had ruthlessly fought to depress wages and extend hours at his steel mills, writing passionately about the need to administer to the community. Passionately and also sincerely, to judge by the massive sums of money he gave away, though all of it according to a plan designed to encourage the ambitious and discourage the man looking for a handout.
To avoid this outcome, Carnegie gave to institutions he believed would facilitate the rise of the next generation of self-made men: He endowed libraries, colleges, museums, and concert halls where men might cultivate an appreciation of the arts, as he had. It seems like an illusion only a self-made magnate like Carnegie could maintain. But in , no less a Brahmin than the Episcopal Bishop of Massachusetts gave the idea his imprimatur.
Paul, he is consecrated as was St. Francis of Assisi. In the Gilded Age, even men of the cloth were dealmakers. Later, he would be assigned the task of dipping the bobbins in vats of oil, the odor of which left him green with nausea. Brooks, who inquired one night if he knew of a boy who might make a good messenger. It would be an opportunity for Andrew to leave behind the menial labor of the factory for an office job, one that would bring him into contact with men of business.
Brooks than if my good old Scotch father were present, perhaps to smile at my airs. Great wave immigrants like Antin and her contemporaries molded the bootstrap myth to their own experiences. Louis Borgenicht, another Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe, arrived in New York with no capital and no prospects and found himself in a world foreign and inhospitable.
Of the denizens of the Lower East Side, where the Borgenichts, like many great-wave immigrants, settled, Louis writes:. The conditions demoralize Borgenicht, but the industry he sees wherever he turns inspires him. He spends a week studying the clothing of the men, women, and children of New York.
In a Slavic neighborhood, he happens upon a young girl wearing a small apron over her dress, of a type he recalled from central Europe but had rarely seen in America. Taking them to the street the next day, he sells all 40 by lunchtime. John Swansburg and his editor Jessica Winter talk about how his history of the self-made man came to life. On the back of this initial success, Borgenicht builds a thriving enterprise, with a manufacturing space and employees of his own. Early on, he discovers an inefficiency in his trade. Borgenicht realizes that if he could buy directly from the commission houses that sold on behalf of the mills, he would increase his profits.
He secures a meeting with one the biggest commission houses in the East.
Sitting down with a Mr. Borgenicht recounts the scene that followed:. The Yankees no longer had a monopoly on the self-made ideal. The success of men like Borgenicht increased the diversity at the American church of success, but it hardly swung open the doors to one and all. On the contrary, as the immigrant success story became the dominant strain of 20 th -century self-made mythology, it had a tendency to exclude as many congregants as it welcomed. The achievements of certain disadvantaged groups Jews, say and the continued struggles of others for instance, blacks led to pernicious assumptions about the stuff each group was made of.
Those who found a way to emerge from the ghetto were said to possess the correct cultural values. As Steinberg points out, among the problems with the Alger approach is that it wrongly presumes that all immigrant groups started out with the same disadvantages. Because Jews had for centuries been prohibited from owning land in Europe, they had long since migrated to cities, and to urban trades and professions.
Having put in his 10, hours of garment work—or a healthy portion of it—in Polish Galicia, Borgenicht was poised to thrive in the exploding clothing industry in downtown Manhattan. He also needed a little of what Cotton Mather called grace, Horatio Alger called luck, and Stephen Steinberg calls socioeconomics.
Nasty Gal began as an eBay store, where Amoruso would auction off vintage clothing she found at estate sales and Bay Area thrift stores. Storing her inventory in Rubbermaid bins, she ran her one-woman operation out of a rented pool house that doubled as her home. The business plan was hardly novel, nor did it promise to be lucrative, but Amoruso found she had a knack for anticipating buyer demand and for stoking that demand in her listings. Amoruso recruited models to wear her disco gowns and Golden Girls tracksuits, styling and photographing them for maximal impact in the tiny thumbnail images that can make or break an auction.
In , she shuttered the eBay store and opened an independent site, selling a combination of vintage and contemporary items. Amoruso has been profiled in Entrepreneur , Forbes , and Inc.
The unlikely role a groin hernia played in her career is not overlooked, nor is the effect it had on her personal grooming choices. Despite the hashtag in its title, Girlboss is a surprisingly traditional self-made narrative. Her parents, who worked in home loans and real estate, filed for bankruptcy when she was 10 and expected their daughter to provide for herself from an early age.
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Despite their meager beginnings, Benjamin Franklin and Andrew Carnegie soon found the employments that would launch their careers. In a sputtering economy, and one that still provides greater opportunity for men than women, an aspiring girlboss might need to grasp the bottom rung of several different ladders before she finds the one she can climb. Or she might need to build her own.
That narrative, of course, is still dominated by men. Amoruso is well aware of this reality, but, with typical brio, she suggests that the difficulties she faced in starting Nasty Gal only made the business stronger. By necessity, she built the business debt-free. According to Inc. That message is yet another one borrowed from the self-made man and repurposed for the self-made woman.
Hubbard asks Lapham to describe his childhood, but before his subject can properly begin, Hubbard cuts him off. Early deprivations of any kind, that would encourage the youthful reader to go and do likewise? As Lapham tells his tale, Hubbard conceals a yawn behind his notebook. American culture is awash in distortions of the bootstrap story.