Classic American bootstrap stories?
October 7, 2010 10:22 AM   Subscribe

Classic American bootstrap stories?

It's one of those entrenched American myths, that you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps. I'm convinced this myth is anchored by a few colorful examples -- stories of people who grew up penniless but made something of themselves through entrepreneurial wit and labor -- but for some reason I can't think of any. Do such stories exist? Fictive or otherwise? Or is this myth disembodied?
posted by Hobbacocka to Society & Culture (28 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Horatio Alger's entire body of work is basically this.
posted by Ashley801 at 10:25 AM on October 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Lincoln's a classic.

J.D. Rockefeller grew up the son of a con man.

Henry Ford came from a farm.
posted by griphus at 10:26 AM on October 7, 2010

Horatio Alger's Ragged Dick and other books basically coined the genre of an American guy manifesting his own destiny to wind up rich and happy.
posted by zoomorphic at 10:26 AM on October 7, 2010

(Lincoln, of course, was not an entrepreneur, but I figure he's still a great example.)
posted by griphus at 10:27 AM on October 7, 2010

posted by proj at 10:27 AM on October 7, 2010

John D. Rockefeller is the quintessential bootstrap story, from assistant bookkeeper to a name synonymous with money.
posted by readery at 10:29 AM on October 7, 2010

And if you want satire of this genre, check out Babbit, "Death of a Salesman," Sister Carrie, Great Gatsby, and (more recently) Netherland.
posted by zoomorphic at 10:30 AM on October 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Well, my family has two examples. My father grew up one of five kids in a very poor family and worked his way up from errand boy to VP of a car parts manufacturer (and went from living below the poverty line as a child to a very comfortable, upper-middle-class lifestyle). I was the first in my family to go to college. My father-in-law grew up one of seven kids in an even poorer family - his mother stole milk from the neighbor's porches and the oldest girl would bring one meat pie to school for all the kids to share for lunch, went into the army, became a non-traditional college student afterward, and eventually bought a manufacturing company and put his four sons through college.

These aren't just stories from the men, either. The siblings and parents corroborated.
posted by cooker girl at 10:36 AM on October 7, 2010

As far as fictional portrayals go, Scrooge McDuck grew up a shoe polisher in Glasgow and came to America as a cabin boy to make his millions.
posted by griphus at 10:37 AM on October 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

There are some good examples in Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, in case you're looking to do some more reading on the topic.
posted by bcwinters at 10:49 AM on October 7, 2010

Fictionally, Don Draper and Jay Gatsby both put their own spins on the trope.
posted by punchdrunkhistory at 10:58 AM on October 7, 2010

Mildred Pierce.
posted by hermitosis at 11:00 AM on October 7, 2010

Also Erin Brockovich, of course.
posted by hermitosis at 11:01 AM on October 7, 2010

The Pursuit of Happyness with Will Smith is based on a true story.
posted by kimdog at 11:30 AM on October 7, 2010

Andrew Carnegie
posted by interplanetjanet at 12:26 PM on October 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

In our times, Bill Gates is by far the best example of a self-made man.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:37 PM on October 7, 2010

It's definitely real. It's probably not a majority of poor people who end up pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, but it happens. My boyfriend is the son of a Kentucky steel-worker. He won a full scholarship to go to college, graduated with a bachelor's degree and is now in a pre-medical program.

And my grandfather was raised by farmers, barefoot and poor, deep in Appalachia. Through very, very hard work, he, my grandmother, my uncle and my mother started a secretarial business that turned into a mailing business which is today worth millions of dollars. So yes! These occurrences are very real and non-mythological.

My grandparents live in Naples half the year now, in a very nice country club neighborhood, and I've noticed that they don't like to draw attention to their poor background. Perhaps you yourself know people who have 'pulled themselves up by their bootstraps,' but they are simply being quiet about it.
posted by sunnichka at 12:37 PM on October 7, 2010

If you count "made it from impoverished to middle class," there are tons of examples just in my family. I'm 4th or 5th generation in Alabama. My great-grandparent's generation barely had enough to eat, and several in my parent's generation developed and/or owned businesses and retired very well off.

Several "made it from impoverished to extremely wealthy and/or famous" stories have already been cited - I would argue that Lincoln was an entrepreneur, in that he had a law practice (i.e. owned his own business) before going into politics.
posted by randomkeystrike at 12:56 PM on October 7, 2010

Chocolate Pickle: "In our times, Bill Gates is by far the best example of a self-made man"

...except that he grew up in a middle-class family.

Many famous people had rough beginnings, although not necessarily penniless: Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Dave Thomas (of Wendy's) come to mind. George Washington Carver, maybe.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:18 PM on October 7, 2010

My dad was one of ten kids, all living in one house with their parents. They didn't have much money and ran a convenience store behind their home for money.

One of the siblings died, but the remaining nine have all become wealthy. In fact, all five living boys are doctors, along with 10 of my cousins and my own brother.

When we were kids, I remember my two siblings and I had to share a five-piece chicken mcnugget meal because my mom couldn't afford more than one happy meal. We also ate a lot of cheese that the state gave out via the welfare system at the time.

Just a few short years later, we became well-off and moved into a huge house and started going on nice vacations and stuff.

I give my dad the credit for his hard work.
posted by tacodave at 1:21 PM on October 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, written by Davy Crockett in the early 1800's, is full of exciting "self-made man" adventure stories - some true, many exaggerated.
posted by belau at 4:03 PM on October 7, 2010

George Soros
posted by pompomtom at 5:38 PM on October 7, 2010

Bill Gates's dad was one of the leading corporate lawyers in Seattle, so I don't think that's such a great example. Deval Patrick might be a good current example.
posted by Jasper Fnorde at 7:06 PM on October 7, 2010

Alexander Hamilton for sure.
posted by Sam Ryan at 7:45 AM on October 8, 2010

Pretty much all the filthy rich and incredibly powerful Prohibition-era mobsters -- Luciano, Lansky, Capone, et. al. -- were children of working-class immigrants.

Regarding the American spirit of anyone being able to make it here, they're a special case as considering most were either Jewish, Irish or Italian, they weren't even considered white at the time and were more-or-less (exceptions abound, certainly) racially barred from succeeding in the "legitimate" entrepreneurial sphere.
posted by griphus at 7:52 AM on October 8, 2010

My boyfriend is the son of a Kentucky steel-worker. He won a full scholarship to go to college, graduated with a bachelor's degree and is now in a pre-medical program.

Boyfriend here. My stepfather was indeed a steel worker. My father worked in an oil refinery. My mother was a registered nurse. My stepmother worked in sales. None of them went to college, and all of them retired after many years from 'blue-collar' jobs.

It is true that from age 18-22 I was supported almost entirely by university funds, with significant help from my folks. I did compete for this scholarship and get it on 'merit,' based on academic performance in high school.

But I'd like to disagree with my girlfriend and say that I don't think I represent a case of someone 'pulling themselves up by their bootstraps'.

I don't think I count as a 'self-made' man, because I'm ultimately the beneficiary of thousands of dollars in public funds. The taxpayers of the state of Kentucky paid for a large part of my education (I'm honestly not sure if federal funds contributed; they may have).

It's not like I started with nearly nothing and turned that into a fortune. I started from a modest (middle-class) background and tested my way to the top of a list of people deemed worthy of receiving a free education. (One could alternately say that I was born possessing some intellectual capital and happened to invest it pretty wisely at a young age, which is an entirely different kind of privilege.)

Sunnichka's grandfather is a much better example than I am. That man really had nothing, and now he's nouveau riche. :)
posted by edguardo at 12:42 PM on October 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was born to descendants of slaves; Wikipedia says his mother "was sometimes paid only pennies per day. She had difficulty putting food on the table and was forced to rely on charity." At age 7, Thomas moved in with his grandparents, where he "enjoyed amenities such as indoor plumbing and regular meals for the first time in his life." Starting at age 10, he worked on a farm all day, every day. (Also not an example of entrepreneurial spirit, but definitely bootstraps.)
posted by kristi at 1:55 PM on October 9, 2010

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