The Self-Made Man
Ever since the United States achieved its independence from Britain, the United States has represented a land of economic opportunity and mobility. Immigrants flocked to the United States from their homelands in search of the American dream of wealth and prosperity. Through hard work and a little bit of luck, many were able to achieve this prosperity and move themselves up the social ladder from rag to riches. However, as the nation began to evolve, the workplace began to demand more out of its workers, such as education and experience, rather than just sheer luck and hard work. In the United States during the 1920s, the idea of the “self-made” man began to decline, however some were able to innovate and work their way around this new barrier, the most noteworthy being Henry Ford, Charles Lindberg, and Thomas Edison.
During the 1920s, the increasing
importance of education and the changing view of adolescence as a period of
development brought about a decline in the idea of the self-made man. Previous
to the 1920s, it was common belief that one could achieve wealth through innate
talent and hard work, even though the idea was a misconception. As men in the
United States began to lose their masculinity (Brinkley 824), they began to join
fraternal societies and athletics in an attempt to assert their manhood, and
also began to idolize men who were able to break the constraints of society and
achieve success through hard work and little education, such as Ford, Lindberg,
These three men were innovators and heroes that the American public could idolize as they had circumvented the new route of American success and were representative of the old myth of success. These three men, each lacking a formal education, were able to rise to success on their own efforts and were the genuine representation of the past and a true self-made man. Edison revolutionized the world with his electric lightbulb and other technological marvels. Ford created the assembly line, which helped to revolutionize the automobile industry and provide each American with an affordable automobile, and Lindberg was the first man to make a solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean, making him a hero for not only achieving the idea of a self-made man, but also a true hero who challenged technology and risked his life. These three men were able to achieve wealth and popularity by triumphing over the new technological society with traditional American value, making them self-made men of the period.
Within F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Gatsby is a self-made man of the 1920s, though his methods may not be so honorable. Gatsby, born James Gatz into a modest Minnesota family, embodies the concept of hard work and determination as a route to success. Looking to gain Daisy’s respect and love by gaining wealth, Gatsby enters into the corrupt betting and gambling practices that were rampant during the period as a way to quick success. Gatsby was able to circumvent the concept of education as a route to success, and, despite a questionable route to his success, was able to embody the hard work and determination as a means for success, an ideal held by all Americans for years past that was being threatened by the changes of the 1920s.
During the 1920s, the myth of the self-made man began to decline as education and societal changes had made it harder for men to achieve success through hard work. However, during this period men, such as those mentioned above, were able to achieve success despite the obstacles placed before them, including Gatsby in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
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Brinkley, Alan. American History: A Survey. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1999.