Quiet Desperations of Becoming Self Made
Inspired from Michael S. Kimmel’s essay, “Born to Run”
By Kyle Lyman
The drive for success has been the cornerstone of ever evolving ideology throughout the history of mankind. Michael S. Kimmel’s essay, “Born to Run”, retraces the journey of America’s masculine drive to capture the self-made man. Historical cultures have all been governed by masculine models ranging from Ancient Greece-Macedonian expansion, Roman Hellenism and British Imperialism. It has always appeared that humanity, individually and culturally, pushes into the unknown wilderness to expand their ideology and test their limits. The birth of America was man’s attempt to create his own path from British rule – to break away and start over in a new way. Kimmel’s article begins within 18th century America moving into a maturing United States. The masculine test of worth in the working atmosphere is contrasted against domestic life. This essay will trace the journey in becoming self-made and the cyclical thirst for liberation from home.
From the East to West, self-made Americans desired to create a nation in their own image. It was a test of worth in the working force. This ambition was a highly held virtue amongst men living in the east. A man’s life was his job. Anything else such as: home, wives, children and anything domestic was a distraction softening the edge towards success in competing industries. This domestic phobia encouraged working men to run away from home life toward other industrious men. Thus became the doctrine of self-control, or ways to repress human instinct, to become more productive amongst business rivals.
The doctrine of self-control was rooted by religious leaders who sought to control order in a disordered world. Using business rivalry, they convinced society that any domestic sexual encounter, being self-stimulation or sexual union, would lead to a loss of job. This control spiraled into diets such as: avoiding meats because of temptation for flesh, inhibition of alcohol to keep a sense of failure at bay and child strait jackets to control sexual urges. Work was religion’s excuse to place a strangle hold on society keeping sin “in check”, encouraging men to work harder and to avoid domestication from female counterparts.
This separation of spheres kept wives at home while sons were encouraged to “grow up” faster to keep masculinity at the forefront. The workplace became harder while the home softer. The home was, indeed, a safe haven from work. However, religious “How To” publishing encouraged women to refrain from anything more than being a housekeeper. Stepping outdoors was highly discouraged. Reverend John Todd, a Calvinist Minister, went on to convince women that “the great danger of our day is forcing the intellect of woman beyond what her physical organization will possibly bear” (Kimmel 39). The term “father” or “husband” became nothing more than terms as men pushed farther away from their domestic relationships. The road westward was being paved.
The ideology of the mid 1800s kept society working. Even the slightest notion of settling down would be enough to atrophy man’s work ethic. But there was opposition to this doctrine. Transcendentalist writers such as Henry David Thoreau opposed the rigid Calvinists. Rather, these writers believed that “people can discover moral truths in nature with the guidance of their own conscience rather than dogmatic religious doctrine” (Murfin 488). Thoreau believed that men, indeed, needed to work their muscles and not whither way in homes full of materialized possession. Walt Whitman went on to chastise domesticated men as being too soft, but the “desperate haste to succeed in such desperate enterprises” led to vicarious men living through their jobs, desperate to prove their worth (Kimmel 42). With too many men and only little success in the east, men decided to break away during The Westward Rush.
Westward alluded to adventurism and a chance to recreate oneself. The 1849 California Gold Rush brought around 200,000 men, but hardly any women. Not everyone felt inspired to leave, though, such as Thoreau who went on to publish Walden later in 1854. Instead of leaving, men could find liberation in one’s own backyard. Thoreau’s transcendentalist approach encouraged men to simplify their lives which were now “frittered away by detail” and to separate themselves from working pressures. The challenge: Go into nature to rediscover the beauty of simplicity.
The desire to live freely continued on through fictional literature where writers such as Rip Van Winkle inspired men to take flight because they were fugitive outlaws “born to run”. This mode of freedom spilled into contemporary literature and movies such as Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club were “life just seems too complete, and maybe we have to break everything to make something better out of ourselves” (Palahniuk Ch. 6) because “the things you own end up owning you… It’s only when we lose everything that we’re free to do anything” (Flight Club motion picture). Avoiding domestication by ethnomethodology, or the method of discovering reality by introducing entropy and throwing it into chaos, is one such quality of an outlaw.
But what is the self-made man? The self-made man has been an ever evolving autonomous being that can be traced form the beginning of time. This being could either find success in an area of expertise, live as a vigilante and or become the Tyler Durden Freudian “Id” who distorts life while creating mischief and mayhem – also known at the outlaw. It is the desire to follow one’s own system of beliefs in achieving a certain respect amongst fellow peers. The problem is that society has placed a heavy burden upon the masses to prove this worth. Not everyone fulfills their quiet desperations. The self-made man can, and will, place themselves into a situation where he achieves – at any cost.
The self-made man is rooted from the inner desire to liberate the human soul. The Westward Rush had 200,000 men seeking to remove the enterprise chains of competitive business. Men wanted to bond with each other in the wild because there were no rules to live by except their own. In the east, men would have to step into the shoes of another executive to achieve success. The west offered an equal opportunity to pave one’s own way – a Darwinist approach in survival of the fittest.
The difference between the 19th and 21st centuries is in the self-made woman liberating herself from the religious oppression previously discussed. This hegemony is the woman choosing not to settle and stripping herself of material possessions. Author Own Wister reflected this in his western novel The Virginian in creating an outlaw woman named Molly. It is revealed that women could display the same conviction as well. Perhaps nature would have it that woman no longer caused domestication, but the balance of equal companionship born to run as well. As society continues forward, religious order is still condemning, but not absolute. It can be shaken. Now humanity can pave its own way, without its quiet desperations, finding success in an infinite amount of expression as savage masculinity is balanced out by the feminist counterpart within the wild.
Fight Club. Dir. David Fincher. Perf. Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Jared Leto. DVD. Twentieth
Century Fox, 2002.
Murfin, Ross. Ray, Supryia M. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. 2nd ed. Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2003. 488.
Kimmel, Michael S. “Born to Run” Manhood in America: A Cultural History. 2nd ed. New
York: Oxford UP, 2006. 30-53.
Palahniuk, Chuck. Fight Club. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1996.
Thoreau, Henry D. Walden. Stilwell: Digireads.com, 2005.
Wister, Owen. The Virginian. Mineola: Dover Publishing Inc., 2006.