Building American entrepreneurs : male commercial selves and the road to success in the US 1873-1914

University dissertation from Brighton : University of Sussex

Abstract: The thesis investigates the origins of the American entrepreneur, what popularly has been called the self-made man. It traces the building of the self-made man as a commercial ideal self, leading to the narratives of US entrepreneurship and the road to ‘success’.With the demands and opportunities that grew out of the US move from mercantilism to capitalism, model male commercial self behaviour surreptitiously split into two sides during the 19th century. The idealised side comprised a rhetoric of hard work, self-improvement and thrift, whereas the economic/pragmatic side embraced evolutionary theory and laissez faire. American society in general held on to idealised narratives of the self-made man and failed to expose the destructive side, which was to form the economic/pragmatic self.In the analyses of literary texts emerging between 1873-1914 in the US, the thesis mainly focuses on the narration of the masculine achiever, or the self-made man. American realist and naturalist authors were certainly part of the American post-1865 bourgeois, professional culture, and they also witnessed the professionalisation of literature. However, in the distribution of notions of idealised self, the binary link between destruction and creation, prevalent in the economic/pragmatic side of male commercial selves, is not recognised by realist authors. Further, it is primarily in Theodore Dreiser’s fiction that the boundaries between these two aspects of late 19th century male selves are psychologised and, in effect, rendered meaningless. Whilst realist texts build characters that exercise responsibility and choice, naturalist fiction more successfully targets the destructive side of the economic/pragmatic self.

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