Though the self-made man wasn't an American invention, Americans have cherished the notion of someone rising out of poverty and, through hard work and dedication, achieving at least a moderate amount of wealth and respect. Purely American icons such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson each wrote about the opportunity for anyone in a fluid American class system to grow through their own power towards a particular position in society. Yet, much like Abraham Lincoln in the tumultuous ante-bellum period and the Gilded Age's robber barons, the self-made man appeared most notably in times of rapid change and transition (Cawelti, 1).
The gangster's rise to prominence came in the turbulent several years following the end of World War I. The horrors and the political fallout coming in the wake of "The Great War" created a widespread feeling of isolation among the people of the United States. In failing to ratify the Versailles Treaty following the war and refusing to join the League of Nations, Americans decided to turn their focus upon themselves. Immigration was rampant. New Americans by the hundreds settled into the polyglot cities of New York and Chicago each day. This influx of foreigners threatened the "authentic" American traditions and cultural dominance of an Anglo-Saxon hegemony that saw immigration and growth threatening their small town values. As fundamental Protestants aligned with the Republican Party, they passed two acts limiting immigration (1921 and 1924), raised tariffs, and ratified Prohibition, all in hopes of maintaining their grip on American society and culture (Schultz). Yet in these riotous times of uncertainty for a newly prosperous, growing American society lay the framework for the successful self-made man.
American society saw three main versions of the self-made man emerge in epitomizing the ideal of success. The first focused on a Protestant notion of "piety, frugality, and diligence" in fulfilling the duties of one's occupation (Cawelti, 4). This version suggested that a static, stable social order existed in which success was the attainment of respectability in this world and led to the assurance of salvation in the world to come. As strict Protestantism gave way to other, secular notions of success, this ideal began to fade away (Cawelti, 4-5).
The second tradition placed a premium on a more economic emphasis of success. While the first focused on religious notions of grace and propriety, the second enlisted the purely lay qualities of aggressiveness, competitiveness, and forcefulness (ibid.). As industrialization swept over the United States in the Gilded Age and beyond, people prescribed to this ideal of success beyond the scope of religion. The hierarchical structure of many new corporations demanded such qualities from their employees if they hoped to "climb the ladder of success." The third type of success, however, had less to do with an established social order or hierarchy.
Individual fulfillment and social progress took precedent over the attainment of wealth and status in the third strand of American success ideals. This tradition had its roots in Franklin and Jefferson's notions of a "natural elite," and saw further development in Ralph Waldo Emerson's philosophy based on individual self-reliance (Cawelti, 6). In the Prohibition Era, as the social tumult of immigration and isolation raged between the big city/small town duality, these second and third ideals took shape. These new modes of success had their most prominent early representation in the novels of Horatio Alger.
Universally a synonym for the ideal of the self-made man, Alger's novels provided mid-nineteenth century readers with the belief that hard work and determination equated future success. John G. Cawelti's book Apostles of the Self-Made Man, notes how Alger's novels, unlike other contemporary success novels, did not concern themselves with the concept of divine providence in the destiny of his young heroes (104). Instead, Alger attributed success to self-assurance and the virtues of industry, ambition and fidelity (116). On film, the gangster embodied many of these traits and became a new motif for Alger's self-made man in the Prohibition Era.
Despite the common misconception to the contrary, as Cawelti notes, the self-made man always had a support group; he never succeeded entirely on his own. Alger's heroes often had a benefactor or a group of friends who assisted the him from early in his life up until he achieves the respectability he strove for. As Ragged Dick, the title character of Alger's first work
While Rico and Tony each had their eyes on the absolute top of their respective gangs, Tom respected and admired his benefactors. Instead of scheming to control the gang, Tom was content to attain "respectability" within the gang. Alger did not intend for his hero to rise to apex of economic or political power, but to merely be a respected junior clerk or middle manager in a successful corporation (ibid.). Tom most dramatically shows his high esteem of the gang's hierarchy when he first learns of the death of "Nails" Nathan. After hearing about Nathan's death due to a tragic fall off a horse, even after being assured that there was no foul play involved, Tom immediately goes to the horse's stable, pulls out his gun and shoots it. As Nathan's death inevitably means Tom will rise higher in the hierarchy of the gang, the loss of one of his most honored superiors drives him to the seemingly unspeakable act (even in a film ripe with violence) of killing a horse. Nathan's demise stirred Tom's wrath to such an extent because of his role in helping Tom rise from the streets to respectability. Each character, like Tom, rose due to his own determination, hard work and skill as a gangster.
Basic hard work served as the hallmark of each one of Alger's novels. The film gangster's life (and death) revolved around the same basic tenets. Careful preparation and implementation of detailed plans and strategies followed by skillful execution led to the eventual reward. Tony Camonte's "marketing" of his beer to several speakeasy owners, forcing them to buy his beer instead of beer from his competition, though not in the virtuous mold of Alger's hero, requires constant vigilance and persistence. Tony needs to keep track of literally thousands of speakeasies in order to climb through the ranks of his gang, and emerge on top.
Another of Alger's departures from the contemporary success story of his time was that he had his heroes begin as youths on the streets of New York, looking for a way out of poverty. Other success novels had their heroes start from a comfortable middle-class origin where they rose through good manners, education and a Christian work ethic (Cawelti, 104). The film gangster, certainly not from a well-to-do family, had to struggle from his youth on the streets without a strong family structure to guide them. Often with a widowed mother as his only parent, the young gangster grew up learning how to survive through his wits and relationships with the assorted criminality of the streets. The novice gangster learns of success through watching the leading gang bosses. Whether its in the boss' icons of prosperity (such as diamonds and expensive paintings) or in realizing that they have the respect of their men, the epitome of success, as Rico Bandello famously says in Little Caesar, "be somebody." Yet where the gangster film does echo the Horatio Alger type of the self-made man, it similarly offers an interesting contrast.
Ironically, while there existed many similarities between Alger's self-made man and the film gangster, the gangster was also a parody of the Alger archetype (Munby, 43).
The virtue of hard work that Alger prescribed for his heroes always had an ingrained sense of morality. He is, according to Cawelti, "the veritable apotheosis of modesty" (112). They struggle against the antagonistic forces of the city and rise above the depravity by maintaining true to their basic, virtuous determination. The gangster, on the other hand, succeeded based upon how well he could, and would, exercise evil impulses. Violence and intimidation forced the owners of speakeasies to buy beer from them (in larger quantities and at an inflated price) than from others. Murder and mayhem (including blowing up speakeasies that bought beer from rival bootleggers) were the tools they used in order to eliminate competition and rise above the "common man" into the heights of fame and wealth.
As Alger's self-made men rose to the pinnacle of their success, it never was to the lofty heights of Rico or Tony Camonte (Cawelti, 109). Alger's heroes were meant to become ideal employees in junior clerical positions. Rico and Camonte would never settle for anything but the absolute top of the organized crime business, always flaunting the symbols of wealth as they reached the pinnacle of the gangster life. Tony "shines" his pinky ring on his shirt regularly, just as Rico openly admires his new diamond and platinum watch (even after he learns its stolen property). Alger's heroes never ascend high enough to afford such luxuries. However as new clothing was the sign of "making it" for both Alger's hero and the film gangster, the gangster took it to an extreme.
Alger's hero's suit was needed in order to assume his position in the office instead of the common overalls worn on the factory floor or in the warehouse. As Cawelti notes, "the most crucial event in the hero's life is his acquisition of a new suit" (118).
The film gangster, in changing from the rags of the street to the suit of respectability, whether in the tradition of Alger or in parody of it, did so through his conduct in business. And the film gangster's business was crime.
|Public Enemy Little Caesar Scarface|
Prohibition - The Self-Made Man - The Business of Crime
The Ethnic, Urban, Working Class - Sound and the Gangster
Censorship and the Hays Code - Conclusion