The bulk of critical studies on men and masculinities (CSMM) have historically been defined by disciplines like sociology, anthropology or social work, with voices like those of Raewyn Connell, Jeff Hearn and Michael Kimmel, among many others. As Paul B. Preciado argues, masculinity does not exist in itself as an ontological unit separate from social relations and discursive networks, which are closely linked to power relations [1]1 — Preciado, P.B. (2019). Un apartamento en urano, 72. Barcelona: Anagrama. . Setting out from this basis, CSMM focus on giving a critical analysis of the historical evolution of what being a man has been taken to mean up to the present day [2]2 — Hearn, J. (2019). “So, What Has Been, Is, and Might Be Going on in Studying Men and Masculinities? Some Continuities and Discontinuities.” Men and Masculinities 22 (I): 54. .

Through scrutiny, these studies have revealed that the social construct that for centuries presupposed that what was human was synonymous with the male gender is just that, a construction: a social category that has held a privileged position together with others like white ethnicity or heterosexuality. Therefore, the plural notion of masculinities aims to reflect the diversity of ways of defining oneself in relation to normative masculinity and so take up positions of dissidence. In the Anglo-Saxon world, study of representations of masculinities in the field of the humanities gained visibility from the 1990s onwards, making clear that the analysis of cultural representations like literature, film or art play a fundamental role in the dissemination and construction of this collective concept of masculinities.

In the American literary field in particular, the book by Leslie Fiedler Love and Death in the American Novel, published in 1960, became a pioneering study in the analysis of masculinity as a specific genre in approaches to topics and the construction of characters. Other studies then appeared, with a major impact in the academic world, such as Manhood and the American Renaissance (1989), in which David Leverenz analysed the impact of models of masculinity on authors in the so-called “American Renaissance”: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Walt Whitman. Finally, Manhood in America: A Cultural History (1996) by Michael Kimmel, which has now become a classic, offered a review of the construction of masculinities in the history of the United States, while complementing the analysis with examples taken from literature and film.

The Self-Made Man as a Normative Model

One of the models of normative masculinity that has had the most visibility in the history of the USA is that of the well-known “self-made man”, which emerged within the context of the gradual consolidation of capitalism. This archetype of masculinity is a neologism originating in the USA. Its earliest use dates back to 1832 and it has been used historically to refer to men who have achieved a good social position and a certain fortune on the basis of their own “patient, diligent” work [3]3 — Kimmel, M. (2006). Manhood in America: A Cultural History. Oxfor: Oxford University Press, 19. . According to the definition of the term, men find their social realisation in the public sphere (as opposed to, and clearly separate from, the domestic sphere, which is identified as feminine), where they benefit from geographical and social mobility. Mobility is a central plank of the concept, according to Kimmel, as this kind of masculinity is closely linked to market growth in a market defined by its volatility; self-made men will be competitive and pushy in business as a way of combating this uncertainty on which their male identity depends [4]4 — Ibídem. .

In this respect, the social structure of the USA offered the ideal context for the development of this model. The absence of hereditary titles meant that the possibilities of upward social mobility were very high, and the model rapidly caught on, becoming dominant much earlier than in Europe [5]5 — Ibídem, 13. . In fact, the term began to circulate about the time of the concept of breadwinner between 1810 and 1820 to refer to the head of the family and provider, another ideal that has persisted as part of normative masculinity to the present day [6]6 — Ibídem, 14-15. . Undoubtedly, the high expectations placed on both the self-made man and the breadwinner extended throughout the 19th and 20th centuries and formed one of the great gender mandates that has often created anxiety for many middle-class white men [7]7 — Kimmel, M. (2019). Hombres blancos cabreados. Valencia: Barlin Libros. .

Washington Irving, Henry David Thoreau and Frederick Douglass establish a dialogue with the model of the self-made man

Different texts in US literature establish a dialogue with this model that was consolidated during the 19th century to become a mandate of masculinity, specifically for white men. Below are some comments on three texts, written by Washington Irving, Henry David Thoreau (both white men) and Frederick Douglass (African American) which set out to analyse the literary representation of the model of the self-made man.

Making Oneself Is a Drag: Rip Van Winkle

The first story I propose to discuss is that of Rip Van Winkle [8]8 — Irving, W. (1819). “Rip Van Winkle” [Available online]. , published in 1819 by Washington Irving, a text that achieved great popularity at the time of its publication. Considered the first professional writer in the United States, Irving wrote this short story as part of the collection The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Canyon, which also included other short stories that have become popular, such as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

Rip is a character who might even seem likeable: he is friendly by nature, willing to help anybody who needs it, is not obsessed with the materialist dream of making money, has a farm but does not bother much about it and any need to get to work is met with a yawn. This aversion for any kind of useful work on the part of the protagonist goes together with his family position as husband of a female character whose name we do not know—she is simply referred to as “Mrs. Van Winkle”—and is also the father of four children. She is presented as the archetypal castrating woman who constantly reminds her husband of all his obligations. Rip goes off to the woods for a brief respite from his wife’s constant nagging. After a while he sits down to rest in a clearing, and sees a mysterious group of men who offer him alcohol. As a result Rip falls asleep. When he wakes up he finds that twenty years have passed, his wife died some time ago and his children have grown up.

The text is interesting from the point of view of analysis of masculinities because up to a point the protagonist questions the model of the self-made man. On the one hand, it is a severe criticism of the obligation of productivity, responsibility and pushiness inherent in the model of the self-made man. Before all the responsibilities Rip is supposed to take on a man, he idles and sleeps, so questioning the supposition that that as a white man he must be a productive part of society. As Judith Fetterley rightly suggests in her Resisting Reader [9]9 — Fetterley, J. (1978) “An American Dream: ‘Rip Van Winkle.’” The Resisting Reader. A Feminist Approach to American Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1-11. , this mischievous possibility of questioning a model of normative masculinity is cancelled out because it is inextricably linked to misogyny. The text constructs Dame Van Winkle as an unpleasant, annoying, bossy character who makes like unbearable for poor Rip. She in fact represents all the qualities of the self-made man, but personified in her they become unbearable, meaning that Rip is presented as the victim whose only option is to escape from this situation.

Irving portrays a male character who flees from the pressure placed on him by the fact of being a man to be the breadwinner; but in his case it means it is his wife who takes on this task

On the other hand, the text also portrays a male character who flees from the pressure placed on him by the fact of being a man to be the breadwinner; Rip is also the father of four children, but avoids any productive work to provide for his family, meaning that it is his wife who takes on this task. Thus, when Rip awakes and returns to the village, he realises he has slept long enough to solve his biggest problem: his wife and his family responsibilities. With his wife long dead, Rip becomes a person from the past who is venerated in his village as a great patriarch. Any criticism of the demands of the model are submerged by an ending in which, as Leverenz argues, patriarchal nostalgia is restored[10]10 — Leverenz, D. (1989). Manhood and the American Renaissance. Ithaca: Cornell U. P., 8. .

Resistance to Productive Masculinity: Walden by Henry David Thoreau (1854)

Another text that challenges the requirement for productivity inherent in the model of the self-made man is Thoreau’s Walden [11]11 — Thoreau, H. D. (1845). Walden or Life in the Woods [Available online]. Written on the basis of the notes he made while living in a cabin he had built beside lake Walden, about four kilometres from the village of Concord, Massachusetts, Walden has become a classic of American literature and a profound reflection on what are, according to Thoreau, the values that should guide one in life. Determined to live life in an aware way, Thoreau writes that his reason for embarking on this experiment is to live “deliberately” and listen to what life has to teach him with the aim of, when the time of his death arrives, being able to say that his has lived. As Laura Dassow Walls explains in her extraordinary biography of Thoreau, the writer goes to live on a plot of land owned by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson and asks to borrow an axe with which to cut the logs he needs to build the cabin that is to be his home for two years, two months and two days, from 4th July 1845 to 6th September 1847. As Walls states, the act of going to the woods and living only with what he really needs is the writer’s personal Declaration of Independence [12]12 — Walls, L. D. (1987). Henry David Thoreau: A Life. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 189. .

While Thoreau’s experiment is often described in a bucolic way, presenting it as an act of complete self-isolation, it should be remembered that the writer regularly talked to people who went fishing or swimming at the lake and often visited his family. Thoreau took advantage of these visits to have his dirty linen washed, something that, as Rebecca Solnit and Walls point out, is often used as an argument to discredit the experiment Thoreau was engaged in. Also, Thoreau took on occasional jobs, especially for Emerson, to earn the little money he needed to survive.

Thoreau’s experience during these two years is described in a text—written in a meditative style that also includes practical aspects—that constitutes a declaration of principles contrary to the values that in his opinion rule the dominant white society and, by extension, the values derived from the model of the self-made man. Thoreau set out to write a text that represented an appeal, a call to attention to make his peers (salaried white men) realise how grey and ambitious lives revolving around productive work really are. He addressed his words to men who felt discontented with their everyday lives, calling on them to live in full awareness. As Leverenz argues, the audience of white men who were victims of a system that dehumanised them was also a victim of traditional masculinity [13]13 — Leverenz, D. (1989). Manhood and the American Renaissance. Ithaca: Cornell U. P., 22. , a type of masculinity that, in line with the parameters of the self-made man, demands that men work and produce rather than actually living.

Thoreau set out to write a call to attention to make his peers realise how grey and ambitious lives revolving around productive work really are

According to Thoreau, the “true manhood” he represents is that of a man who tries to live life consciously, not the masculinity that bears down like a rock on men who have become machines and lost their souls along the way. Thus, the writer condemns the fact that the possession of goods has become a status symbol held in high regard by society so that those who have money are treated differently from those who do not. This is the context in which Thoreau suggests distinguishing between what is really necessary and what is superfluous, so questioning the accumulation of possessions as a symbol of social success that forms part of the definition of the self-made man.

Frederick Douglass: The Self-Made Man and Ethnicity

The third example of a dialogue with this model of masculinity is that set forth by the African American writer Frederick Douglass in the first of his autobiographies, The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845) [14]14 — Douglass, F. (1845) “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave” [Available online]. . Born a slave on a plantation in Baltimore, his mother was a slave and her white master was probably his father. The publication of this first autobiography is significant because of the big impact it had at the time, making the writer into one of the leading figures in the abolitionist movement. Douglass speaks from his situated knowledge, i.e. on the basis of his experience as a black man who has been a slave, who manages to escape to become a runaway slave for a long time but finally manages to buy his freedom thanks to a collection. In the text, the road to freedom and the process of regaining a sense of humanity that slavery had wiped out is of critical importance. Along this road, Douglass changes his name, realises the liberating power of education and becomes aware of the need to confront a system that dehumanises him. One of the most prominent episodes in the text is when he is moved to another plantation, where he is brutally beaten until he decides to fight back, leading to his escape.

Douglass’ life is a good example of the model of the self-made man [15]15 — Sandefur, T. (2018). “Frederick Douglass’s Philosophy of the Self-Made Man”. The Objective Standard Conference, Richmond, Va. [Available online]. because, despite his birth as a slave, he manages to become a free man with social recognition. His case, however, is clearly different from the two previous ones. While Irving creates a white character who escapes from the model and Thoreau recounts his experience as an educated white man who decides to do without what is superfluous to make a statement of principle, Douglass’ ethnicity immediately places his outside the sphere of privilege.

In Douglass’ case, exclusion from the model is combined with a paradoxical desire to be part of it: his celebration at regaining his human dignity essentially rests on proving that his masculinity gives him access to the white model

His autobiography is a text full of first-hand details of the dehumanisation and brutality of slavery as an institution, bringing out the contradictions in a country that claims to be founded on liberty [16]16 — In “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” Douglass firmly rejects the construction of a national discourse based on the rhetoric of freedom that excludes much of the population on the basis of sex, class or ethnicity. Douglass, F. (1852) “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” [Available online]. —the US Declaration of Independence states that “all men are created equal”—showing up the obvious point that the rhetoric of the self-made man is exclusively white. However, in Douglass’ case, exclusion from the model is combined with a paradoxical desire to be part of it. As Armengol explains [17]17 — Armengol, J. M. (2014). “Slavery in black and white: White masculinity as enslaving in the Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass”. Masculinities in Black and White Manliness and Whiteness in (African) American Literaure. New York: Palgrave McMillan, 20-21. , critics have noted that it is difficult to read his texts without realising that his celebration at regaining his human dignity essentially rests on proving that his masculinity gives him access to the white model, something that has led some to point out that his writing speaks of a universal humanity similar to the white male ideal, and therefore to accuse him of having a view centred on the male experience, forgetting African American women [18]18 — The speech on “The Self-Made Man” given on many occasions by Douglass over his lifetime also offers a reflection on the concept. Douglass highlights necessary human interdependence as one of the aspects essential to achieving the model and questions the invulnerability and self-sufficiency that forms part of the definition of the self-made man. Douglass, F. (1874) “Self-Made Men” [Available online]. .

***

To sum up, we have seen that the three texts explore different aspects of the model of the self-made man—productivity, pushiness or ethnicity—while making visible the anxiety and contradictions inherent to the norm. The model that has persisted over time as an example of normative masculinity, in this case in the United States, but also elsewhere, remains a subject for analysis and reinterpretation.

  • References

    1 —

    Preciado, P.B. (2019). Un apartamento en urano, 72. Barcelona: Anagrama.

    2 —

    Hearn, J. (2019). “So, What Has Been, Is, and Might Be Going on in Studying Men and Masculinities? Some Continuities and Discontinuities.” Men and Masculinities 22 (I): 54.

    3 —

    Kimmel, M. (2006). Manhood in America: A Cultural History. Oxfor: Oxford University Press, 19.

    4 —

    Ibídem.

    5 —

    Ibídem, 13.

    6 —

    Ibídem, 14-15.

    7 —

    Kimmel, M. (2019). Hombres blancos cabreados. Valencia: Barlin Libros.

    8 —

    Irving, W. (1819). “Rip Van Winkle” [Available online].

    9 —

    Fetterley, J. (1978) “An American Dream: ‘Rip Van Winkle.’” The Resisting Reader. A Feminist Approach to American Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1-11.

    10 —

    Leverenz, D. (1989). Manhood and the American Renaissance. Ithaca: Cornell U. P., 8.

    11 —

    Thoreau, H. D. (1845). Walden or Life in the Woods [Available online].

    12 —

    Walls, L. D. (1987). Henry David Thoreau: A Life. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 189.

    13 —

    Leverenz, D. (1989). Manhood and the American Renaissance. Ithaca: Cornell U. P., 22.

    14 —

    Douglass, F. (1845) “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave” [Available online].

    15 —

    Sandefur, T. (2018). “Frederick Douglass’s Philosophy of the Self-Made Man”. The Objective Standard Conference, Richmond, Va. [Available online].

    16 —

    In “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” Douglass firmly rejects the construction of a national discourse based on the rhetoric of freedom that excludes much of the population on the basis of sex, class or ethnicity. Douglass, F. (1852) “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” [Available online].

    17 —

    Armengol, J. M. (2014). “Slavery in black and white: White masculinity as enslaving in the Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass”. Masculinities in Black and White Manliness and Whiteness in (African) American Literaure. New York: Palgrave McMillan, 20-21.

    18 —

    The speech on “The Self-Made Man” given on many occasions by Douglass over his lifetime also offers a reflection on the concept. Douglass highlights necessary human interdependence as one of the aspects essential to achieving the model and questions the invulnerability and self-sufficiency that forms part of the definition of the self-made man. Douglass, F. (1874) “Self-Made Men” [Available online].

Teresa Requena Pelegrí

Teresa Requena Pelegrí is a professor in the Department of English and German Philology at the University of Barcelona. She is part of the research groups “Construyendo nuevas masculinidades” (“Building new masculinities”) and “Masculinities and Aging”, and has participated in the collective book Masculinities and Literary Studies: Intersections and New Directions (2017). She teaches British and American history, culture, and literature of the 19th and 20th centuries. Concerning research, her publications focus on the link between literary production and the cultural and historical aspects of the period. She has also studied several playwrights such as Adrienne Kennedy and Suzan-Lori Parks. As part of the research project “Homes de ficció: cap a una història de la masculinitat a través de la literatura i el cinema dels Estats Units, segles XX i XXI” ("Fictional Men: Towards a History of Masculinity through American Literature and Cinema, the XX and XXI Centuries”), she has published articles on Ernest Hemingway and F. S. Fitzgerald, where she analyses the construction of different models of masculinities in the American modernist period. She is currently involved in several projects on how masculinities happen to be represented in contemporary American literature and, in particular, in the work of Jonathan Franzen and David Vann.