Ragged Dicks: Masculinity, Steel, and the Rhetoric of the Self-Made Man

Ragged Dicks: Masculinity, Steel, and the Rhetoric of the Self-Made Man

Ragged Dicks: Masculinity, Steel, and the Rhetoric of the Self-Made Man

Ragged Dicks: Masculinity, Steel, and the Rhetoric of the Self-Made Man


Portraits of self-made men are rife in Western culture, as James V. Catano observes. Positive and negative, admittedly fictional and ostensibly factual, these portraits endure because the general rhetorical practice embodied in the myth of the self-made man enacts both the need and the very means for making oneself masculine: verbal power and prowess. The myth of the self-made man, in short, is part of ongoing rhetorical practices that constitute society, culture, and subjects.

To explain those practices and their effectiveness, Catano argues that the basic narrative achieves much of its effectiveness by engaging and enacting the traditional psychological dynamics of the family romance: preoedipal separation, oedipal conflict, and "proper" postoedipal self-definition and socialization.

To focus on the combined social, psychological, and rhetorical dynamics that constitute the ongoing activity he calls masculine self-making, Catano emphasizes a particular strand: masculinity and steelmaking. Pursuing that strand, he argues that these representations of masculine self-making are rhetorical enactments of cultural needs and desires, and that they are ongoing and formative arguments about what society and its individuals either are or should be.


After all, this is just a story about a kid from a good immigrant family who studied hard and worked hard, who had some big successes and some big disappointments, and who made out fine in the end because of the simple values he learned from his parents and teachers, and because he had the good luck to live in America.

—Lee Iacocca, Iacocca

Rags to riches. Sons of truck drivers growing up to be millionaires. It could only happen in … Finland?

… Markus Jäntti, who teaches at the Academy of Finland, surveyed existing comparisons of fathers' and sons' incomes in Britain, Canada, Finland, Germany, Malaysia, Sweden, and the United States. He found that the United States had less mobility between generations than any country except Britain….

“The United States is exceptional, ” Dr. Jäntti writes, “only insofar as it has extraordinarily high relative income differences. ”

Chronicle of Higher Education, 31 January 1997

AMERICA IS IN LOVE WITH THE MYTH OF THE SELF MADE MAN—reports from Dr. Jäntti and the Chronicle be damned. Neither of them has the audience—or the emotional appeal—of Lee Iacocca and his immensely popular self-portrait, one of many such tales that abound in Western and especially American culture. Positive and negative, admittedly fictional and ostensibly factual, narratives such as these are not only wide ranging but also durable, making the self-made man a central myth within the history of the United States. Extending backward from Iacocca to Benjamin Franklin, the most well known and stereotypical endorsements of the myth remain the late-nineteenth-century's broad, middleclass stories of masculine self-making known as Horatio Alger tales: morally uplifting stories that enact a successful struggle to overcome less than spectacular origins and reap justly deserved economic and personal rewards.

The Ragged Dicks of this book make up a brotherhood that is commonly exemplified in corporate magnates such as Lee Iacocca of Iacocca . . .

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