Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream

Image of Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream
Release Date: 
March 14, 2023
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“‘Anyone who thinks they are truly self-made should call their mother,’ writes Alissa Quart.”

“Anyone who thinks they are truly self-made should call their mother,” writes Alissa Quart.

In Bootstrapped, the author (Squeezed) and executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project ardship Habrilliantly debunks the American “fantasy of self-reliance,” which has been around since the 1830s, when the notions of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and become a “self-made man” first appeared.

In fact, reliance on others was considered “normal” in the pre-industrial era, she says. Depending on others held no stigma. “Needing each other is our strength, not our weakness.”

The main purveyors of the “self-reliant Ideal” were the writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and his best friend, Henry David Thoreau, writes Quart. This despite Emerson’s relative wealth and Thoreau’s leaning “quite heavily” on others. Their “preoccupation with the meaning of individualism helped to some extent to define the American way.”

And they had a lot of subsequent help in their celebration of individualism from others, including Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867­–1957), author of Little House on the Prairie (1932), one of a series of eight autobiographical books that has sold more than 60 million copies.

“If Emerson and Thoreau helped establish the poetic and intellectual version of self-sufficiency, Wilder espoused a mass cultural, child-friendly version of it. “A pioneer-Western-self-creation-fantasy,” Little House and the other books “wound up in millions of living rooms and in the hands of young girls, forming their values. We might call the result young-adult bootstrapping.”

Many houses on the prairie benefited immeasurably from government munificence through the Homestead Act (1862), which gave 160 acres of land to citizens who promised to live on and cultivate it, she writes.

Thanks in part to Wilder and other proponents, the phrase “rugged individualism” soon pervaded the rhetoric of presidents, from Herbert Hoover to Ronald Reagan and beyond.

Drawing on considerable research and her own reporting, Quart goes on to discuss Horatio Alger’s novels about poor boys who make good through “pluck and hard work”—always with some “hidden dependency” on a more privileged person.

She also offers the views of contemporaries like Stephen Prince, successful founder of a Tennessee gift card company, who says “from the get-go he had benefited from both the sacrifices of his hardworking employees and the confidence that’s baked into being a comfortable White man in the South.”

The favorite expression of the reputedly self-reliant is “I worked hard for it.” But Quart insists: Yes, but what about the mentors, the bankers, the subsidy-providing government agencies, and the opportunities that appeared along the way?

“The fiction is that we must strive on our own for singular success that is within reach of us all,” writes the author. “This notion doesn’t just provoke foolish materialism or inevitable petty disappointment. It has had serious negative effects on our social fabric, sustaining inequality and hindering the better collective choices we could be making.”

She adds the better choices might start with creating more mutual aid groups, cooperatives, participatory budgeting groups, and community trusts.

Filled with stories about can-do America, her book is a thoughtful, nuanced examination of our “self-punishing” individualism.