There’s No Such Thing as a “Self-Made Man”

The bootstraps narrative is near and dear to Americans’ hearts. But it’s a fiction, one that obscures complex relationships of interdependence and generates a culture of self-blame. It’s time to bust the myth for good.

Commuters walk to work over London Bridge in London, England. (Scott Barbour / Getty Images)

In 2020, Quaker Oats and its parent company, PepsiCo, announced the retirement of the Aunt Jemima brand for their syrup and pancake mix. The move was a response to backlash against the negative “Mammy” stereotype the brand invoked. But the discourse being what it is, there was inevitably a backlash to the backlash, with some sharing memes bemoaning the loss of a cultural icon.

The general theme of this second backlash was that Nancy Green, who first brought the character of Aunt Jemima to life at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, was an exemplary American success story. Born into slavery, Green was an excellent cook who parlayed her talents into becoming the spokesperson for R. T. Davis Milling Co’s pancake mix. Through her individual efforts, the story goes, Green became one of America’s first black millionaires. To remove her from the box was to diminish her accomplishments.

The American self-made success story is a powerful cultural force. In Green’s case, her ascent from humble beginnings to fame and wealth was perceived by many as far more important than the brand’s flaws, namely that the persona of Aunt Jemima was a racist caricature and that the character’s fictionalized backstory was a “lost cause” style celebration of the Antebellum South.

The power of rags-to-riches narratives is the focus of Alissa Quart’s new book Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream. In the book, Quart, a journalist focusing on working-class issues and the executive director of the journalism nonprofit Economic Hardship Reporting Project, takes aim at the fiction of the self-made man. Bootstrapping stories, Quart writes, “enforce the pernicious parable of the deserving rich” while engendering feelings of self-blame in those who can’t attain the American ideal of success.

Sometimes our bootstraps fictions are outright falsehoods. For example, a closer look at Green’s biography reveals that while she was able to use her notoriety to advocate for economic and civil rights, there is no evidence that Aunt Jemima’s parent company shared any of the profits that her advertising persona brought in. After twenty years of service, she was replaced without ceremony. Far from being a millionaire, she was still working as a housekeeper in obscurity when she died.

But there is a subtler and more pervasive untruth that connects all bootstraps narratives. The idea that anyone can be “self-made” is itself a lie. Quart’s book unravels these “rich fictions,” tracing their evolution from the romanticization of the self-made man in early American literature to the hardened individualism of Ayn Rand and beyond. Behind every bootstrapper’s ascent, Quart reveals complex relationships of interdependence.

Donald Trump is exemplary of all aspects of the bootstraps myth. To begin with, everything about Trump’s claims to self-made fame and fortune is a lie. But even more striking is just how much of his political support rests on voters’ perception of him as self-made. Some Trump voters were simply unaware of his childhood privilege and the many bailouts that kept his businesses afloat. Others were obliquely aware of these facts, but Trump’s bootstrapping narrative spoke directly to their own beliefs about what it takes to survive in America and what’s ultimately responsible for inequality and class stratification.

The attachment to the image of Trump as self-made serves a deep psychological need for conservative voters who want to reconcile their entrenched political identity with the inequality they see and experience. Meanwhile, it lets conservative politicians off the hook when they cut millions off from desperately needed help on behalf of their rich donors.

If all Bootstrapped aimed to do was expose the hypocrisy of those who promote the myth of total self-reliance, it would still be a well-written and valuable contribution. But Quart’s book has a larger point to make: there is simply no such thing as true independence within the human condition. Everyone requires some sort of help, whether it’s from mothers who perform unpaid care work and raise children, public infrastructure that allows businesses to function, or employees who sacrifice their time and effort — often for poverty wages — in order to make profits for owners who proudly tout their self-made fortunes.

Bootstrapped is presented as a journey of sorts, Quart’s personal odyssey through the social and economic ramifications of the bootstrapping narrative. She talks to people from all walks of life: those who have successfully escaped crushing poverty, people who are still living in precarity, and even ardent Trump supporters who are crushed by the weight of the expectation to be self-made. Quart finds that even in institutions where the value of interdependence is evident and systemic thinking should come naturally — public schools, social welfare, charity, and mental health therapy — bootstrap narratives have crept their way in, perverting those institutions’ functions and leaving many to fend for themselves.

Not content with mere diagnosis, Quart presents an alternative definition of and explanation for success, one where community and interdependence are the true drivers of economic prosperity and social cohesion. In her travels and conversations, Quart discovered that the pandemic had revealed the supreme importance of interdependence in providing the scaffolding for our economic system. For example, there is no way for two parents to work forty hours a week without day care, a fact that became distressingly apparent when the threat of COVID shut down day care centers across the country. Pushed to recognize their need for help, people responded by seeking support in community — tapping into social networks, church congregations, and mutual aid organizations. In the process, many learned a great deal about the myth of self-reliance, even in ordinary times.

Bootstrapped is at its strongest when Quart tells the stories of people discovering the value of interdependence and using that knowledge to create social change. These are stories not just of people marshaling resources to help fill economic need, but also finding intellectual and emotional fulfillment as part of a community. They suggest a path to happiness and security that does not rely on isolating notions of individual “grit” and “resilience,” but rather on the invigorating realization that we are never alone.

Quart also finds inspiration in the actions of politicians responding to the demands created by the pandemic, noting the significant — albeit, it seems, temporary — change in the Democratic Party’s rhetoric and legislative agenda away from Clintonite anti-welfare policies and toward universal childcare, the child tax credit, and even a potential wealth tax. The book doesn’t give much consideration to the legislative hurdles facing a Democratic Party agenda based on the value of interdependence, nor does it deal with the Democratic Party’s propensity to promote these kinds of ideas to garner electoral success only to abandon them at the behest of donors. For Quart, the material constraints keeping our national politics from wholly rejecting bootstrapping narratives are less important than acknowledging the potential for embracing and championing a new story.

The bootstrapping narrative was created and propagated to obscure inevitable relations of dependence, and its ultimate purpose is to justify the extreme economic inequality that results from and fuels capitalism. Bootstrapped promotes a new narrative, recognizing that humans are naturally dependent on one another and rejecting the idea that needing help is a source of shame.