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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

The Making of the Self-Made Man

How America came to worship the men who style themselves as heroic entrepreneurs and innovators in the mold of Thomas Edison.

Few men embody the late nineteenth century’s particular blend of technological optimism and vitalist mysticism quite like the American inventor Thomas Alva Edison. “The Wizard of Menlo Park,” as the papers termed him (rival monikers included the “Jersey Columbus” and “The Napoleon of Science”), Edison was not merely the inventor of some of the modern era’s most vital devices—the phonograph; the electric bulb—but also one of the Gilded Age’s best-known celebrities. Edison was as canny at playing the press as he was at actual scientific development (Edison’s initial 1878 public display of the electric bulb was in fact something of a hoax; it took several more months before the bulb would burn more than a few seconds), and in the public imagination he became equal parts capitalist impresario and occultist magician, scientist and showman. The New York Sun and The New York Herald alike lauded him as a singular genius, capable of harnessing the new and mysterious powers of this newly-illuminated modern age. “School-girls write compositions on Edison,” one contemporary journalist wrote.” The funny papers publish squibs on Edison. The daily papers write up his life. … Why don’t the [newspapers] fill up exclusively with Edison and be … done with?”

Meanwhile, the power with which Edison was most closely associated—electricity—took on a life of its own. A mysterious, quasi-magical force running through all of natural existence, simply waiting to be harnessed by a person of sufficient mental and moral power (or so the nineteenth-century press would have it), electricity became both a national obsession and a national metaphor: “Comply with electricity’s conditions,” one of Edison’s contemporaries breathlessly wrote, “then but turn a key and the servant of all life will be present in light and power.” Another wrote of responding to the electric dynamo “much as the early Christians felt the Cross,” marveling at its “Mysterious Power!” “Gentle Friend! Despotic Master! Tireless Force!”

This late nineteenth-century craze for electricity absorbed a variety of more dubious phenomena. Alongside electricity proper, self-help books and tabloids promoted the pseudoscience of mesmerism (hypnotism), also known as “animal electricity.” Other would-be gurus sold the secrets of “electro- physiology”—harnessing the universe’s less visible energies in search of personal prosperity. Edison’s electricity was, in other words, both a technological force and a distinctly nineteenth-century cultural mythos, bolstered by the celebrity culture of the burgeoning newspaper industry, a mythos that reflected both the anxieties and the ambitions of the gilded age.

Central to the pop narrative of Edison, and of electricity more broadly, were a series of new and distinct assumptions about the self, the world, and the relationship of one to the other. Edison represented the paradigm of a new kind of self-made man: self-made both in the colloquial capitalistic sense, and in a more explicitly philosophical one. A modern magus (or so the popular narrative would have it), Edison understood how to harness and awaken the implicit energies of the universe. By cultivating his will, his personality, and his particular genius, Edison could achieve the bounty promised, in theory if not in practice, to any would-be bootstrapper. The pursuit of material success took on a newly mystical cast: to become a self-made man, in the Gilded Age, was not merely to become wealthy, or famous, but to develop one’s own personality in harmony with the mysterious will of the universe.

Self-cultivation was hardly new to the American moral tradition. From Frederick Douglass’s lectures on “Self-Made Men” to the “Self-Culture” championed by liberal Protestant minister William Ellery Channing, the idea that the self could and should adopt certain industrious attitudes was an integral part of American liberal ideas. But these earlier iterations of self-making, by and large, treated self-cultivation as primarily a question of virtue ethics and political citizenship: only though proper individual self-governance could the project of American democracy be legitimized. The genre of hagiographic short biographies of self-made men popular in the early and mid-nineteenth-century, such as Charles Seymour’s 1858 Self-Made Men, and abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1872 The Lives and Deeds of Our Self-Made Men, tended to focus on national civic heroes—including Abraham Lincoln and Douglass himself—rather than wealthy entrepreneurs.

But as the nineteenth century wore on, and the inequalities of the Gilded Age propelled titans of industry like Andrew Carnegie (steel), John D. Rockefeller (oil), and J. Pierpont Morgan (electricity), to positions of political and economic prominence, self-making took on a new, and often mystical, meaning. The new self-made magus did not simply cultivate simple civic virtues like thrift and piety. He used his distinct genius to tap into the world’s latent, undiscovered energies, harnessing them for his own ends. His financial prosperity was not merely a personal boon, but a spiritual achievement: the self-made man reflected the final purpose of a vitalist universe, a universe which wanted the most powerful human beings to transform themselves into gods.

Electricity was not the only scientific or technological development to be subsumed into this new narrative. Central to the development of this new cult of the magus was the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and the subsequent popularization of the school of thought known as “social Darwinism”: a reductionist view of human life as “the survival of the fittest” (a term first used by influential social Darwinist Herbert Spencer, and only later adopted by Darwin himself). For Spencer, technological progress and human development went hand-in-hand; the moral arc of the universe bent toward the abolition of those undesirables incapable of harnessing Nature’s brutal powers. “The whole effort of nature is to get rid of [the poor],” Spencer wrote, “to clear the world of them and make room for better.” For Spencer, human technological progress meant tapping into Nature’s existing telos; it was “not an accident but a necessity. Instead of civilization being artificial, it is a part of nature; all of a piece with the development of the embryo or the unfolding of a flower.” Another Spencerian, the Yale social psychologist William Graham Sumner, likewise argued: “Nature is entirely neutral. She submits to him who most energetically and resolutely assails her. She grants her rewards to the fittest, therefore, without regard to other considerations of any kind.” Elsewhere, Sumner would insist that “millionaires are a product of natural selection.”

This social Darwinism, to its adherents, likewise took on the fantastical qualities of a new religion. Describing his first reading of Spencer, the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie— another of the Gilded Age’s self-made industry captains—recounted how:

“Light came in as in a flood and all was clear. Not only had I got rid of theology and the supernatural, but I have found the truth of evolution….Man was not created with an instinct for his own degradation, but for the lower he had risen to the higher forms. Nor is there any conceivable end to his march to perfection. His face is turned to the light.”

(Meanwhile Darwin himself remained dubious of such interpretations of his work, remarking “I have received in Manchester newspaper…[a write-up] showing that I have proved ‘might is right’ and therefore that Napoleon is right and every cheating tradesman is also right.”)

Here, too, human avarice and the human will to power were linked and sacralized: understood not as selfish desires, competing with the order of a harmonious world, but as the very energy underpinning the world itself, the ghost in the historical machine. This sacralization was only intensified with the nineteenth-century development of New Thought, a hybrid of pseudoscience, self-help and pop religion, that dominated American culture (particularly in the Northeast) from the 1860’s onwards. First popularized by faith healer Phineas Quimby, New Thought (also known as the “mind cure” and “animal magnetism”) held that our circumstances in this life were affected by our mentality: the power of positive thinking rendered literal. “A person is limited only by the thoughts that he chooses,” James Allen insisted in one New Thought text, As a Man Thinketh, promising that “The outer conditions of a person’s life will always be found to be harmoniously related to his inner state.”

Illustration by Julia Wald

While New Thought began as a primarily medical phenomenon—patients were encouraged to think positively in order to get well—it soon achieved wider popularity as a money-making technique. The man who learned to transform his internal landscape, cultivating a positive personality and harnessing the mysterious energy of the universe, was guaranteed financial success. By the turn of the twentieth century, a whole cottage industry had sprung up, promising to teach readers the secrets of “personal magnetism” and “thought force.” Allen himself published dozens of such works, including As A Man Thinketh (1903), Through the Gates of Good (1903, All These Things Added (1903), From Poverty to Power (1906), Eight Pillars of Prosperity (1911), Foundation Stones to Happiness and Success (1913), and The Divine Companion (1919)—all dedicated to the veneration of inward thought as a means of achieving personal success.

Achieving success and achieving enlightenment were now one and the same. As Henry Harrison Brown, publisher of New Thought magazine NOW, put it: “Man as thinker shapes the universal energy into forms of use and beauty, through his thought in mechanics and art. … Man is thus the absolute, becoming cognizant of himself. Man is God thinking. … The conscious man controls the God in man.” The divinization of success, furthermore, doubled as a theodicy of inequality: a means of explaining a world in which the mean hourly wage of an average male factory worker was 16 cents an hour. Certain human beings could make themselves—in so doing participating fully in what it meant to be human. As for those that did or could not—well, their failures made them a little less human.

The link between the self-made man and the magus wasn’t limited to American capitalistic discourse. Across the Atlantic, a different kind of self-made phenomenon gained traction throughout the nineteenth century: the consciously artificial figure of the dandy. In England, the type was perhaps best represented by Oscar Wilde in England. In France, it was embodied by novelist Barbey D’Aurevilly and the subsequent generation of “literary decadents.” Worshiping artifice, art for art’s sake, and the triumph of will over nature, these dandies might at first glance seem to be the exact opposite of the American self-made men: writers and painters rather than entrepreneurs, aristocratic (or at least pseudo-aristocratic) reactionaries rather than bourgeois titans of industry. But, no less than their capitalistic counterparts, the European dandies reacted to the anxieties of the modern industrial age—wealth inequality, urban crowding, the rise of machinery and the obsolescence of certain kinds of human labor—by adopting a mystical approach to the question of self-fashioning. The dandy, after all, was the first modern celebrity—famous for being famous, as we would say today, someone who learned how to court and craft public opinion in order to create (and, given that most of these writers were hoping to sell their own books, profit from) their own alluring identities.

The dandy that learned to create himself, according to such dandy-manifestos as Honoré de Balzac’s 1830 “Treatise on Elegant Living,” Barbey D’Aurevilly’s 1843 “On Dandyism and George Brummell” (a combination biography and manifesto of dandyism), Charles Baudelaire’s 1863 “The Painter of Modern Life,” and Joséphin Péladan’s 1894 “On the Beautiful Personality,” became—in D’Aurevilly’s words—a “miniature god.” The dandy, like the entrepreneurs, was set apart from the common man, possessing an inchoate power of personality that legitimized his superiority over them. Baudelaire himself referred to dandyism as a “type of new aristocracy … based upon heavenly gifts conferred by neither work nor money,” one that risked being “drowned” by the “rising tide of democracy.”

Self-making here, too, was understood explicitly as an act of magic—it’s little coincidence that dandyism proliferated alongside a resurgence of interest in the occult—a harnessing of personality as a kind of latent force. The occultist and magician Joséphin Péladan, for example, published a number of books that straddled the line between self-help guide and magical manifesto: among his most famous was How to Become a Magus (women had its companion volume: How to Become a Fairy). For Péladan, aesthetic self-creation was—no less than the economic self-creation promised by New Thought—fundamentally an inward exercise of will: Péladan exhorted readers to “create your own magic, not because your efforts are motivated by vanity, but because you are seeking in yourself the originality of a work of art.”

In the case of the entrepreneur and of the dandy alike, we can see how the process of self-cultivation—whether in service of financial success, celebrity status, or some amalgamation of the two—took on a decidedly mystical cast. To turn inward, to focus on the self and its desires, to demand prosperity from the universe, to think positively—all these represented the creation of a new cult of selfhood, one that saw the pursuit of worldly esteem not only as allowable but necessary: the moral culmination of a Darwinist world that adopted as demigods its favored few.

This new cult of selfhood flowered everywhere. We can see it in the genealogy of twentieth-century fascism: the line of influence from Nietzsche and Schopenhauer (a major influence on dandy-decadent culture) to the authoritarian poet-politician Gabriele D’Annunzio to Mussolini and Hitler. All were in thrall to the ideal of the übermensch: the ultimate self-maker in whom worldly power and aesthetic perfection combine. We can see it in the development of the twentieth-century American star system, and the concordant rise of advertising, proffering to the proletariat the promise of Clara Bow’s “it”: that blend of charisma, sex appeal, and, yes, personal magnetism that came to define the celluloid celebrity. And we see it, too, in our contemporary cultural-economic landscape: the ubiquity of the personal brand as an economic necessity in the gig economy, where influence is a currency, inseparable from the New Thought-infused worship of wellness: only by living our best life, channeling our positive energy, manifesting our dreams of personal self-betterment, we are constantly told, can we unlock the universe’s plans for us. Ideals of self-care, of toxic energy, of you make your own purpose, are so ingrained as norms within our contemporary discourse that it is easy to forget their relatively recent provenance. It is easy to forget, too, their metaphysical and moral underpinnings: the promise that the strong will inherit the earth; that the wealthy will be blessed. It was a religion to the self-made men of the nineteenth century. It is our religion now.

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