3 Archetypes of American Manliness- Part III: The Self-Made Man

by Brett & Kate McKay on September 19, 2010 · 25 comments

in A Man's Life, On Manhood

Today we will cover the last of three archetypes of American manliness proposed by Michael Kimmel in his book, Manhood in America. As we discussed in previous posts, both the Genteel Patriarch and Heroic Artisan were ideals of manliness imported from Europe to the American colonies in the 18th century. Both archetypes offered American men a solid male identity that was grounded in family tradition, community, and personal autonomy.

But the 19th century’s rapid industrialization would greatly weaken the Genteel Patriarch and Heroic Artisan archetypes while giving rise to a distinctly American one. Slave-worked plantations vanished. Large factories put small shop owners out of business and made their trades obsolete. Many men were forced to leave their rural family homes in search of work in the burgeoning urban centers of America.

Manhood had been rooted in community and family ties, land ownership, and craftsmanship. Fathers passed on their farms or apprenticed their sons in their trade. Without these longstanding traditions, American manliness faced a great crisis. From whence would a man’s sense of identity now derive?

The answer lay in the burgeoning opportunities of an industrial society and the unfettered expanses of the nation’s frontier. A new type of man was needed to navigate this fast-paced, impersonal, and risky world. Enter the Self-Made Man

The Self-Made Man Archetype

The Self-Made Man was the restless go-getter who constantly strove for success in the public sphere and the marketplace. Instead of basing his identity as a man in landownership, genealogy, or artisanal skills, the Self-Made Man rooted his manliness in personal achievement, status, and wealth.

The birth of the Self-Made Man archetype represented profound changes in the culture, the most significant being the rise of individualism. A man’s loyalties shifted from family and community to self, from steady toil in a lifelong labor to a desire for novel and immediate rewards. A man needed to rely on his inner-resources, not the help of others; success was for those willing to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Men no longer had to do just what their fathers had done nor stay in the same small villages where their family had always resided. The country was full of new opportunities, and young men struck out on their own, hoping to find individual success. These new opportunities offered a seemingly level-playing field, where any man, regardless of inherited wealth or family name, could start a new life and make a fortune for himself. A man could enter a company at the bottom and attempt to work his way to the top. Or he could head out West, trying to make it as a cowboy or strike gold as a miner.

Heritage and trade skills were no longer seen as the keys to success; instead, focus shifted to a man’s personal characteristics and qualities. These were the things every man had control over and could be moved into any situation or location. The Self-Made Man strove to cultivate the values of thrift, hard work, persistence, and entrepreneurship. And while his inner-qualities were important, it was also paramount to the Self-Made Man who made his way in the world of business to appear successful to others, to cultivate a winning personality. If you wanted to make your way to the top, you had to learn how to make friends and influence people.

The Self-Made Man archetype was fueled and celebrated by both real life stories and dime store novels. A man like Andrew Carnegie was held up as a prime example of the the Self-Made Man-someone who had risen from factory bobbin boy to captain of industry. Stories of average joes hitting it rich with a gold mine or creating a vast cattle empire flooded back East. And adventure books about mountain men and frontiersmen using nothing but their strength and wits to conquer the wild frontier fascinated young boys and men alike. Horatio Alger created a whole cottage industry from stories of boys who lived a clean life and did the right thing and were thus rewarded by being plucked from obscure poverty and into a comfortable life.

But despite the glean given the Self-Made man in the culture, it also had dark side for manliness. Manhood for the Genteel Patriarch and Heroic Artisan was more stable-once a man had established his estate or craft, he could feel assured of his manliness. But the manhood of the Self-Made Man was ever in doubt, tied as it was to external factors and the whims of financial success. Just as the value of a company’s stock fluctuated from day to day, so could the value of the Self-Made Man. He constantly had to prove and earn his manhood in the marketplace, knowing all the while that at any moment it could be taken away by job loss, sickness, or financial ruin. This constant need to prove one’s manliness day in and day out created a sense of anxiety and insecurity among American men that we still see today; one day you’re a corporate warrior on the very top of your game, the next you’re unemployed in slippers and a robe, feeling emasculated as you scan the classifieds.

A life governed by market economics influenced male friendships as well. The refined respect between Genteel Patriarchs and the close knit fraternities of Heroic Artisans were replaced with more isolating and distant relationships among men. Every man was out for himself; it was a dog eat dog world. Instead of being a potential friend, the man next to you was competition. And it’s hard to develop the cutthroat instinct needed to destroy the competition when the competition happens to be your bosom buddy.

Influence of the Self-Made Man Today

Of the three archetypes of American manliness we have discussed, the Self-Made Man archetype continues to have the most influence down to the present day. The idea that any man, from any background, can become whatever he wishes by dint of his hard work has become almost a religious tenet of the American ideal. It’s what continues to inspire immigrants from all around the world to come to this country with the hopes of a starting better life. Politicians try to sell themselves not as products of privilege but as self-made men (“My father was a mill worker”). And we are far more interested in and apt to applaud the story of a man who came from virtually nothing to make it big than we are the man who came from two Ivy League-educated parents, SAT tutoring, and a suburban home.

But the popularity of the Self-Made Man tends to wax and wane. During times of economic woe like the Great Depression, where a man might have worked tremendously hard and still ended up selling apples on the corner, it tended to be viewed with more skepticism. (At the same time, however, it also added to men’s shame; if success was entirely based on pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, some reasoned that something was surely deficient about the unemployed). While the Self-Made Man archetype may have taken a bit of a hit during this most recent recession, it’s also been given new life by the rise of  the internet. The internet provides what the frontier of 19th century once did-a seemingly level playing field in which any man with enough pluck might make a fortune. Men no longer need to wait to go through official channels to get their writings, art, music and so on out to the world. Internet celebrities rise and fall by directly appealing to the masses. Today, however, the watchwords are not hard work and persistence; instead, the new ideal is overnight success; the dream is to create the next Facebook or post the next viral video.

Of course there have always been those that think the Self-Made Man was a myth from the beginning. Critics argue that real-life self-made men represent extreme outliers and that the vast majority of those from privileged backgrounds end up in society’s top slots, while the majority of those who start out poor will never escape poverty. The separation between advocates for and against the Self-Made Man often (although not always) break down along political lines. Those on the right celebrate the Self-Made Man, using his existence as justification for more a hands-off government, in which (at least theoretically) men and businesses rise and fall based solely on merit. Those on the left point to socio-economic factors as being the great determiner of a person’s success, and thus look for ways in which the government can attempt to step in and level the playing field. Much of the debate in Washington over policy really comes down to a disagreement over the reality and viability of the Self-Made Man.


3 Archetypes of American Manliness Series: 
Part I: The Genteel Patriarch
Part II: The Heroic Artisan
Part III: The Self-Made Man

The Genteel Patriarch, the Heroic Artisan, and the Self-Made Man. Each archetype represented a cultural ideal of manliness during a certain period of American history. No actual man ever fit neatly under these categories; in every time men have of course lived complex lives that defy labeling. Rather, these archetypes point to changing standards of manliness in the popular consciousness that influenced how men were perceived and judged by others and subtly influenced themselves. What archetype will predominate in the 21rst century? Will the Self-Made Man continue to hold sway or will a new ideal emerge?

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Luke Iha September 19, 2010 at 9:30 pm

Great article, I was really looking forward to this one.

I noticed that you used the word ‘outlier’ and that you’ve mentioned the book of the same name several times in different articles. In the book, or so it seems from what I’ve read so far, Malcolm Gladwell argues against the popular image of the self-made man and rather attributes these rag-to-riches success stories to unique and rare opportunities, coupled of course with obvious brilliance and hard work.

I do firmly believe in the value of hard-work and that ‘unique opportunities’ are in store all around for those who look, but I was wondering what you thought about this point that Malcolm makes. Do you believe that, regardless one’s circumstance and background, with lots of hard work, dedication, and a strong pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mindset anyone can achieve success?

I guess it also depends on how you define success…Regardless, great article!

2 Charles the Brewer September 19, 2010 at 10:37 pm

My father and grandfathers would be Self-Made Men by these criteria. It’s a reasonable choice for your life’s direction and has flourished because it allows a man to provide, love, and serve. HOWEVER, don’t confuse your occupation and identity if you follow this path. Your identity as a man only depends upon others as long as you allow it, knowingly or not.

That said, I don’t know if being Self-Made would satisfy me. The Heroic Artisan’s independence and relatively simpler life (though not necessarily simpler craft) are compelling.

If you’re not sure what you want out of life, add The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (the white-covered translation printed before year 2000) to your reading list.

3 Linards September 20, 2010 at 6:31 am

I am wondering how can it be that in the 18th century there were two main archetypes, in the 19th, as mentioned in this article, there was one which replaced those two existing before. That’s three archetypes in so short period of time, but only one in almost two centuries! How about 20th century? Can it be that Self-Made-Man has been replaced long time ago? I think there’s no way that women fighting for their rights haven’t influenced American manliness and introduced new archetype. Or even the two World wars. Maybe I’m wrong. Any thoughts on this matter would be very appreciated.
Anyway, thanks for these articles. I enjoyed reading them. Very well done!

4 Jonathan Browne September 20, 2010 at 10:24 am

Great article good sir!

I personally would rather not be an archetype and just be me.

Certainly you can take elements from all three.

5 Kevin September 20, 2010 at 12:25 pm

The Self-Made Man closely ties with the American Dream started in the 1930s. Your opportunities for success are not limited by circumstances at birth. As others have stated, that may no longer be enough for the 21st century man.

While hard work will always be a tenet of manliness, developing unique skills and honing them into a craft is making a comeback. Men also have to be well rounded – not just successful in business but in secondary pursuits and raising a family too.

Accessibility of information and the plethera of opportunities set a new bar for American manliness. The book, Manhood in America, is a cultural history. I’d love to see Kimmel’s thoughts on the cultural present and future.

6 Humam September 20, 2010 at 1:11 pm

Here is a great example of a self made man – Malcom Brickland

The man who started Subaru and brought Yugo to America.


7 Thomas September 20, 2010 at 4:36 pm

A new Archetype of manliness…it’s hard to tell, at this point, what that will be, but I think the economic crisis and the recent wars will play a major role in its development. The Stoic Endurer, perhaps?

8 Hondo September 20, 2010 at 5:59 pm

While clearly not manly would we consider the “metrosexual” a new archetype? Granted they are really more feminine than masculine but could that perhaps be the impact of feminism on manliness?

The self made man is a uniquely American ideal I think and it is inescapably linked to our national identity. The heroic artisan and genteel patriarch were most certainly European ideals and were replaced by the self made man when America was truly “born”. In America a pauper could become President. It truly is the great divide in our nation as well; those who want to make it on their own steam versus those who want someone else’s steam or of course the intellectuals who believe a certain amount of social engineering will create some sort of Lenin-esque utopia only with better results than his efforts.

9 ARP September 20, 2010 at 6:14 pm

The problem with this archetype is that its relatively rare. Being truly “rags to riches” doesn’t happen often. Most “self-made” men already had a leg (or both legs) up on the rest of us, or had a safety net so that risking it all, wasn’t really risking it all. But we’re told the stories so often (and without the context), we feel like it happens by the gross every day. While clinging to a potentially unrealistic archetype isn’t a problem by itself (and there is a chance it could actually happen), contructing an entire political philosophy around it does create issues and could actually inhibit more self-made men. For example, if you had health care taken care of, would you quit that job you hate and start your own business, work for a non-profit, volunteer, etc.? How many entrepreneurs have we prevented through our insistence on government staying out of our lives rather than allowing government to take care of some of the necessities so that we can focus on our profession? Is that number greater than the people that were prevented from being self-made men due to taxes, regualtions, etc.? Is making $14M instead of $10M more important than having the opportunity in the first place or to provide others with the opportunity to do the same? The current Self-Made Man thinking is yes. Until the late 1970′s, the answer was probably somewhat different. Now, we have more millionaires than ever, but a smaller middle class and an ever expanding group of working (or not working) poor.

10 Charles the Brewer September 20, 2010 at 9:38 pm

ARP: I see this archetype every day. The self-made man isn’t just those few reach the socioeconomic top. The self-made man just implies that, whatever your identity or status may be, you made it. True, those rags-to-riches tales are probably told too often relative to their occurring. They’re frequently repeated because they inspire others to “make themselves.” However, most extreme cases of success I’ve seen resulted from disproportionate amounts of will power, resourcefulness, and living within one’s means.

Read The Millionaire Next Door. You’ll get an idea for how many millionaires in the U.S. reached the top. An interesting note: about 80% are first-generation affluent; they inherited nearly nothing compared to their current net worth. To summarize and paraphrase, they often had the guts to devote themselves entirely to a goal rather than make excuses like, “But I need [healthcare, status, authority...].”

11 Hondo September 20, 2010 at 10:52 pm


I understand where you are going but human nature dictates a person provided for is less likely to strive for themselves. Look no further than government projects where housing, food, and healthcare are all provided it creates nothing more than a legacy of poverty that haunts generations very little innovation stems from housing projects. Or to use an example from the other end of the socioeconomic ladder to avoid the “lack of resources” argument look at trust fund babies (ie. Paris Hilton) they often do little more than squander what they have been provided by prior generations since they’re already been provided for they feel no need to reach for anything else.

Also one error I’m thinking you’re making in your thinking is you are assuming a man can only be self made if he has great material wealth but that is not the case. A man growing up in a cramped apartment in the inner city may want nothing more than to own a large farm in the country so he can stretch his legs. A farmer is not going to be of great wealth generally but by cutting his own path he will become self made. I grew up in a single parent home in a poor crime ridden neighborhood and while not wealthy now I have clawed my way out and did not fall into the cycle of poverty that so many of my upbringing do. Am I a captain of industry? No, but self made, yes and I like to think improving every day. My steam has been my own and I want no more in life than the opportunity to better myself. To me that is being a self made man.

12 Felix September 21, 2010 at 4:34 am

“He constantly had to prove and earn his manhood in the marketplace”

“Every man was out for himself”

These and other takes around them on the self-made man sound a wee bit like something taught in academia – no friend of that archetype, to be sure.

I’ve read most of the Horatio Alger books. These quotes reflect polar opposites of the world view and circumstances of the heroes.

Try reading a few. You must calibrate for their being written for boys, but they do give a fascinating window into another world. E.g. In one, the hero rents a room from a kindly women, described as “Irish … but honest”.

13 CB September 21, 2010 at 7:45 am

The original two archetypes were, as Brett & Mr. Kimmel stated, imported from Europe and European culture. Once we severed our colonial ties, it was almost ineveitable that a new archetype emerge.
I don’t think the Self-Made Man has been replaced to this point. I do conceed the possibility that he may have a competing archetype in the near future. Though, at this time I’m not sure what that would be.

14 Joe September 21, 2010 at 2:33 pm

There is no such thing as a truly self-made man. There are men who have achieved great things, but everyone has benefited from help along the way.

15 Hondo September 21, 2010 at 2:57 pm

Being helped does not rob one of being self made it’s all about how they choose to utilize that help. Bill Gates parents letting him use the garage to build computers in was help but he could have just as easily used that garage to smoke pot and listen to Pink Floyd.

16 ARP September 21, 2010 at 5:14 pm

Hondo/Charles the Brewer

I guess my point was that we cling to the political philosphy that if some people can make it without help, nobody should be helped. Meaning, self-made men and government support are not contrary ideas, even though we’ve been trained to think they are. There will always be a debate about the proper role/involvement level of govement (more v. less, etc.), but to say that one must remove one to have the other is false choice in my view.

17 Nick September 21, 2010 at 6:15 pm

First and foremost the self-made man is such because of his hard work, determination, and other personal charateristics. You can’t ge to the top (and stay there) by sheer luck. However, in most cases (as others have discussed) what finally propels this hard worker to the top is help from others. Be it friends, collegues, even the government, there is something there for them. Like a sailor and his boat, no matter how large the sails he’s made, he will go no where without wind.

18 Charles the Brewer September 21, 2010 at 10:00 pm

ARP: I dig what you mean. The man consumed with “making himself” looks to support only himself. It’s an archetype I admire with reservation.

Nick: You make a grand point. To expand on the ship idea, ask a captain where his next port-of-call is and he’ll tell you in a heartbeat. He’s confident despite whatever distance and difficulties he knows must come first. Just the opposite, the man without a rudder drifts around completely subject to changing winds. With sometimes one harbor along hundreds of miles of coast, what are the odds that the man drifting will land where he wants to be? The self-made man chooses his destination and masters the wind. Landing where he chose was no chance.

19 Allyssa September 22, 2010 at 12:59 am

Today, there are very few wealthy individuals such as Andrew Carnegie who contribute some of their wealth and blessings to philanthropy. I think his generosity is more manly than anything else a rich man could have!

20 Allyssa September 22, 2010 at 1:01 am

I also forgot to mention Rockefeller…capital giants from the past who with their wealth have done good things and have contributed to our American heritage!

21 The Counselor September 22, 2010 at 12:11 pm

Another great article, Brett. Of the three archetypes you’ve covered, I feel that I probably identify the most with the self-made man. I agree with Hondo’s point that you don’t have to be a captain of industry to have made it in life—simply improving your position relative to your past can be a significant achievement.

I’ve sometimes struggled with the darker side of this archetype (particularly when unemployed) and I know how frustrating it can be trying to live up to an ideal the world judges you by—even when your “failings” are simply the result of worldwide economic conditions. Also, not to demean the achievements of many 19th-century rags-to-riches industrialists who inspired the archetype, but much of what they did to succeed would get you thrown in prison if you tried it today. Carnegie and Vanderbilt in particular took significant advantage of non-public information to trade stocks in companies they wanted to acquire or otherwise manipulate. Again, this is not to take away from their long hours, hard work and legitimate achievements, but merely to point out that some of the things in their tool kits are unavailable to today’s would-be entrepreneurs. It was also easier to amass a vast fortune if you didn’t have to pay any type of income tax on it, but that’s a whole other topic by itself.

22 xban September 23, 2010 at 3:03 pm

Charles the Brewer mentioned it, but I think it’s worth re-iterating: the self made man notion should be interpreted to mean more than making it to the rarefied top occupied by the likes of Bill Gates or Warren Buffet. I would see the self made man archetype as the man who reaches or exceeds his own goals, whatever they may be. To me it’s simply the idea of going through life relying mostly on yourself instead of expecting (or feeling entitled to) help from others. When you achieve something you are proud of, you know you are the main person responsible for that achievement. You may have been lucky – but it’s your luck. You may have been helped along the way – but it was you in the driver seat. In other words, you bear the main responsibility for what you do – good or bad. What an unusual notion these days…

23 Mike September 25, 2010 at 10:16 pm

There is no such thing as a 100% self-made man (or woman). We are all the result of the kindness of others and the breaks they’ve either given us or helped us capitalize on.

24 jeff September 29, 2010 at 3:59 am

Forget the works of fiction when describing the archetypical American, look at biographic history instead. The works of Horatio Alger, was as sophomoric as the yellow backed books of his time and given very often to the working poor as examples of what they could accomplish as long as they where first subservient to the status quo until by work, luck and providence they would claim social superiority and a faux equality, and still be subjugated too an even more elite i.e., Old money. Histories self made men were not as notable by their personal accomplishments as by their whole sell destruction of any and all challengers, usually with support of a very willing government bought and paid for, and a miss informed rabble that would do anything for a slight advantage, even if it meant killing their own kind for a few days wages. The final tally will show that what most men become is not to be envied but rather expunged before the working mind of mankind: which most of the time it is anyway. Much of what we talk about are the Robber Barons, that stole the wealth of this country while being claimed the salt of the earth, men like the men Carnegie, Rockefeller, Ford, Edison (yes little Thomas A), Sears, J.P. Morgan, and dozens of others who at first light look like the manliest of men, only to find them as neurotic, vengeful, racist, mommies boys. You see them at the end of their lives trying to pay for a free passage into the next life by creating foundations that support the community only after they have had their fill and that of their family as well.

The American archetype is a myth. We are not of a character like someone that comes along as other before them; the true impact of American manhood comes from the true individualist that rejects out of hand the idea of a common path of success, who is usually humane, hopeful, pragmatic, flexible of thought, and mixing capability with willingness to delay gratification for his self for the betterment of his family, friends, and community. The material is secondary to the ideal, the strength a matter of personal well, and the result of personal success a series of respites from the mundane and tedious. The true American male is indefinable because he is different in each swinging dick out there. In the end he dies, and leaves maybe a few memories among family and friends, with no future memorial other than a weathered headstone that may only get the dates of his birth and death right. But that is ok because the true American man is happy to live a life where he can just live to where he can shave in the morning, whistle, and mean it.

25 Roger October 14, 2010 at 10:52 pm

I don’t believe the ‘self-made man’ is an American archetype at all. This sort of striving upwards from your own ingenuity was evident in Europe for centuries already and perceived as aspiring to the gentleman class, the minor aristocracy. Stories like ‘Hobson’s Choice’ and the success of the new entrepreneurial bourgeoisie in England in the 1840s/50s, where the new industrially-backed consumerism took off before anywhere else, are prime examples.
In America it is merely the idea that “everyone and anyone can be a self-made man”, since the perception (a false one) was that class society was not imported to America; which is arguably the rationale behind the ‘American Dream’.

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