The civic self: The self-made man and civic participation from Franklin to Faulkner
Nothstein, Todd W
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Ubiquitous in American literature and popular culture, the self-made man encompasses a variety of disparate literary characters and real-life paragons of success. Self-invention narratives, which include rags-to-riches optimism as well as tortured, self-effacing protagonists provide American literature with one of its most conflicted and abiding thematic obsessions. As the nineteenth century bleeds into the twentieth, an element of shame increasingly distinguishes representations of the self-made man. The motif of self-invention becomes preoccupied with society's construction of individuals rather then their construction of society. As envisioned by Benjamin Franklin, the right to make contributions to a community functions as a prerequisite for further rational development. The productive Enlightenment fantasy that democracy would render society a conglomeration of individual consciousness, has been abrogated by the question of who is eligible to participate equally in such a democratic society. The difficulties of the women's suffrage movement and the catastrophe of slavery have been woven into narratives of self-invention through persistent echoes of shame. Importantly, however, the most pronounced consistency in self-made man narratives is the negotiation of the self in Relation to a community . The motif is unified by longing for a coherent civic self. This analysis begins with The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin as a theoretical framework for consideration of the self-made man. It then moves to an analysis of shame in Frederick Douglass' 1845 narrative. The remainder of the study is devoted to: Stephen Crane's "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky", and "The Blue Hotel", F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby , and William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!