By Martine Jansen
The recent commotion over the American elections, and the president-elect in particular, got me thinking about the Bachelor thesis I handed in this summer. I wrote my thesis about the presence of the American myth of the ‘self-made man’ in the highly entertaining AMC series Mad Men (2007-2015). In my thesis, I talk about how the series uses the character of Don Draper to unravel the typical American ideology of self-making. The election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States illustrates that even today, the reverence of the self-made man is still very much alive. But why do so many people idolize a myth that was created so many centuries ago? And is it not perhaps time for a new one?
The ‘Self-Made Man’ Rises
It was the United States where the concept of the ‘self-made man’ was first voiced by Senator Henry Clay in 1832 (OED 2016). From that point onward, the self-made man became a much sought-after ideal; more so in America than anywhere else in the world. The strength of this ideal lay in the belief that “those who achieved success in America did so not as a result of hereditary privilege or government favouritism as in Europe, but through their own intelligence and hard work” (Foner 348). The marketable ideal of American self-making grew into a much narrower definition though: “Analyse the elements of it,” a British onlooker remarked in 1885, “and you will see that success is identified to some extent with fame; still more with power; most of all, with wealth” (Wyllie 9). The self-made man became predominately associated with success, wealth, and America. Men like Benjamin Franklin and Andrew Jackson became examples of manhood – representations of men, who displayed the “democratic opportunities” of their times by gaining “political and economic power” without the help of a privileged background (Glass 363). The ‘self-made man’ as a counterforce against the established “aristocratic masculinity” of previous role models such as Washington, Jefferson, and Monroe (Hessinger 412).
However, even in its early days, there were voices that questioned the celebrating of the ‘self-made man’. Late in his life, F. Scott Fitzgerald warned his daughter about the impulse to close your eyes for the “crimes committed” by ‘self-made men’ “in the name of America’s foundation” (qtd. in Wyllie 134). James Fenimore Cooper, Henry David Thoreau and Edgar Allan Poe, before him, had expressed a preference for “farmers above businessmen,” and plenty of nineteenth-century men of literature did not hide their contempt for the ‘self-made man’ and his ethics (135). Nathaniel Hawthorne considered it a shame that Benjamin Franklin was remembered “almost entirely” for his business success and his teachings on “getting money or saving it.” This, Hawthorne claimed, “teach[es] men but a very small portion of their duties.” American Transcendentalist, James Russell Lowell, too, uttered the “hope” that one-day American citizens would realize that “self-made men” are not always the best choice when it comes to forming a well-founded “opinion on all possible topics of human interest” (138-39).
The Fall of a Mad Man
Twenty-first-century’s Mad Men too questions this ideal of self-made manhood. The very first episode of Mad Men foreshadows the world the viewer is about to enter and the man (s)he is about to meet: a self-created image that will have you questioning what is real and what is not. Although Nicky Falkof claims that “Mad Men’s tone” is “one of gently poking fun rather than active critique,” and that the series does not challenge “the myths of American masculine identity” (44), I would suggest that that is exactly what it is doing. The choice to make the leading man, Don Draper, a self-made man is not an arbitrary one. Nor is the world in which he exists – a world that “create[s] illusions,” and where Falkof’s ‘gently poking fun’ actually carries meaning (Siska 200). Don is evidence of the belief that anyone can become someone, but he also demonstrates that the pursuit of the American Dream is not without consequences. What Robert Carringer so rightfully suggests about Jay Gatsby (The Great Gatsby), also holds good for Don Draper: by gaining “those positions of wealth and power,” Don “sacrifice[s]” his “soul” – in “winning the game,” Don “lose[s]” himself (323).
The Real Thing
On the outside, the American myth of the ‘self-made man’ looks praiseworthy. Holding on to something that has such an honourable origin is very understandable. It is, as Richard Poirier suggests, “a way of preserving imaginatively those dreams about the continent” that throughout the years “were systematically betrayed” (51). For, underneath the shiny surface of this myth lie questionable decisions and sacrifices of the soul. The traits once attributed to it are replaced by other, not so commendable, characteristics – emphasizing “skill and luck over hard work, greed and success over virtue, and winning above all else” (Duncan 41). The myth of the ‘self-made man’, like Don Draper, is clouded in ambiguity. The creators of Mad Men address this ambiguity by suggesting that perhaps it is time for an alternative myth. A myth in the tradition of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s belief in the inner “genius” being more important than material and political gain (269). Don Draper’s inner genius and true self-set in again when he shuts out the noises of the myth so greatly admired on the American continent. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that other Donald could come to the same brilliant revelation? As the Coca-Cola advert tells us as Mad Men ends, that is “the real thing, what the world wants today” (7:14).
For those of you who would like to read more, I have attached my thesis here.
Carringer, Robert L. “Citizen Kane, The Great Gatsby, and Some Conventions of American Narrative.” Critical Inquiry 2:2 (1975): 307-25.
Duncan, Aaron. “Reinmagining the Self-Made Man: Myth, Risk, and the Pokerization of America.” Western Journal of Communication, 78:1 (2014): 39-57.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Gen ed. Nina Baym. 8th ed. Vol. B. New York: Norton, 2012. 269-86.
Falkof, Nicky. “The Father, the Failure and the Self-Made Man: Masculinity in Mad Men.” Critical Quarterly, 54:3 (2012): 31-45.
Foner, Eric. Give Me Liberty! An American History. New York: Norton & Company, 2014.
Glass, Loren. “Politics.” American Masculinities: A Historical Encyclopaedia. Ed. Bret E. Carroll. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications Inc., 2003. 362-365.
Hessinger, Rodney. “Self-Made Man.” American Masculinities: A Historical Encyclopaedia. Ed. Bret E. Carroll. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications Inc., 2003. 412-13.
Mad Men. Creat. Matthew Weiner. AMC, 2007-2015. TV Series.
Poirier, Richard. A World Elsewhere. The Place of Style in American Literature. University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.
“Self-Made.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015.
Siska, William. “Men Behaving as Boys: The Culture of Mad Men.” Mad Men. Dream Come True TV. Ed. Gary R. Edgerton. EBSCO Publishing, 2010. 195-208.
Wyllie, Irvin G. The Self-Made Man in America. The Myth of Rags to Riches. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1954.