The self-made man in America: The tension between fathers and sons.

The Fathers and Sons Behind My Essay About the American Mythology of the Self-Made Man

The Fathers and Sons Behind My Essay About the American Mythology of the Self-Made Man

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Sept. 29 2014 11:17 AM
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They Can’t Buy Backbone

Fathers, sons, and the lesson of Herman Blume in my Slate essay about self-made men.

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Illustration composite by Slate. Portraits by Charlie Powell and background by Happy Menocal.

This story is part of a special Slate Plus feature package on "The Self-Made Man." Be sure to check out the other Slate Plus exclusives related to this story, including a full audio version of the piece and a behind-the-scenes podcast conversation between John Swansburg and editor Jessica Winter about the writing and reporting process.

My interest in the self-made man started as a personal one. As I write in the opening section of my Slate essay, my father is a self-made man: He grew up in a working-class town outside Boston and started out as journeyman roofer, eventually working his way up in that business then branching out into others. Like Benjamin Franklin, America’s original self-made man, my father extolled the virtue of industry, and he practiced what he preached: Even when he wasn’t working, he was working. We often joke in my family about the Sunday drives he used to take us on. They were billed as leisure, but more often than not, we’d end up in some old New England mill town, circling a dilapidated building with a For Sale sign hanging from its rusted siding as my father crunched numbers in his head. Fun trip, dad.

As I write in my piece, I’ve always been proud to be the son of a self-made man. But it’s also been a little daunting. Thanks to my father’s hard work, I grew up with advantages he never had, perhaps chief among them a college education. I’ve worried that even if I emulated his industriousness, I couldn’t match his accomplishments, having never faced the adversity he did. As much as I valued my education, I wondered whether my book learning could ever stack up to my father’s degree from the school of hard knocks.

One of the interesting things I discovered in my research is that this anxiety has always been woven into the self-made story, though more often it’s been the fathers worrying about their sons. It starts right at the beginning. Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, the foundational text in America’s self-made mythology, was written in the form of a letter to Franklin’s son William. Some historians believe this was merely a literary conceit. But in The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, Gordon Wood argues that Franklin may well have hoped to make an impression on a son who didn’t share his father’s work ethic. “Unlike his father,” Wood writes, “William Franklin had been raised as a gentleman from birth and had taken that for granted. Certainly the first part of the memoir reminded William that his father had not had William’s privileged upbringing and implied the best course for a young man was to make his own way in the world.” If William took his father’s admonitions to heart, it was not in the way Benjamin intended: When the Revolution broke out, the younger Franklin sided with the crown, leading to a rift between father and son that would never be repaired.

Much of what we know about Amos Lawrence, the 19th-century dry goods merchant I write about in my article, comes from the letters he wrote to his sons. Those letters are full of advice—and gentle scolding—that betrays a concern that the boys will not grow up to share their father’s practicality. On the occasion of one son’s 12th birthday, Amos presented him an account ledger, in which he inscribed the following:

My dear son: I give you this little book, that you may write in it how much money you receive, and how you use it. It is of much importance, in forming your early character, to have correct habits, and a strict regard to truth in all you do. For this purpose, I advise you never to cheat yourself by making a false entry in this book. If you spend money for an object you would not willingly have known, you will be more likely to avoid doing the same thing again if you call it by its right name here.

Sound advice, though I couldn’t help wondering whether the kid might have had more fun with a new slingshot.

Andrew Carnegie didn’t have a son, but he too worried about the tendency of the children of self-made men to go soft. The phrase “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations” is often attributed to Carnegie, probably inaccurately, but it captures his view that privation breeds ambition, and privilege complacency. In “The Road to Business Success: A Talk to Young Men,” delivered at Pittsburgh’s Curry Commercial College in 1885, he told the less fortunate boys in his audience that they actually had an advantage over their better-heeled peers. “The vast majority of the sons of rich men are unable to resist the temptations to which wealth subjects them, and sink to unworthy lives,” he said. He went on:

It is not from this class you have rivalry to fear. The partner’s sons will not trouble you much, but look out that some boys poorer, much poorer than yourselves, whose parents cannot afford to give them the advantages of a course in this institute, advantages which should give you a decided lead in the race—look out that such boys do not challenge you at the post and pass you at the grandstand. Look out for the boy who has to plunge into work direct from the common school and who begins by sweeping out the office. He is the dark horse that you had better watch.

Reading Carnegie’s speech, I was reminded of a similar one given by another self-made steel man, also delivered at a school for young men. He too addresses his remarks to the less well-off in his audience, reminding them that there’s one thing wealth can’t buy: backbone.

Like Carnegie, Rushmore’s Herman Blume believes that the character traits necessary for success are forged in the crucible of poverty. The message fails to resonate with his own entitled boys, but it’s music to the ears of the working class kid who will become his surrogate son, Max Fischer.

There are troubling aspects to this tradition of rich men celebrating the character-building power of poverty. Self-made men have a tendency to believe anyone might emulate their success if they work hard enough, and to underplay the difficulty of escaping the bonds of poverty. (In reality, it’s exceptionally difficult for even the most industrious person to go from rags to riches in contemporary America.) There are also characters missing from this story: namely, young women. Fathers have tended to focus on instilling their values in their sons, assuming their daughters will be taken care of, and have no use for the self-made virtues. This is one of the reasons I enjoyed Sophia Amoruso’s memoir/success manual #Girlboss. In many ways, the Nasty Gal founder’s advice to her readers is borrowed from men like Franklin and Carnegie. Her radical stroke is addressing that advice to girls, not boys, and empowering young women to think like entrepreneurs. As the son of a self-made man, and the soon-to-be father of a daughter, I appreciate that.