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18 Pages

INTRODUCTION Alienable, Intimate, Authentic

AN EMBLEMATIC SCENE IN THE TRADITION OF THE SELF-MADE MAN STORY comes early in Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, when, having run away from his printing house apprenticeship, Franklin arrives as a young man with few resources in a new and unknown metropolis: “I found myself in New York, near 300 miles from home, a boy of but 17, without the least recommendation to, or knowledge of any person in the place, and with very little money in my pocket” (83). It is a scene of arrival that will be repeated in similar terms in such disparate examples of the genre as Frederick Douglass’s late autobiography the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, King Vidor’s film The Crowd, Abraham Cahan’s novel The Rise of David Levinsky, and any number of the stories for boys of Horatio Alger. Douglass’s version, occurring on the first day after his escape from slavery, gives an even more thorough picture of the elements of the scene:

I found myself in the big city of New York, a free man, one more added to the mighty throng which, like the confused waves of the troubled sea, surged to and fro between the lofty walls of Broadway…. The bonds that had held me to ‘old master’ were broken. No man now had a right to call me his slave or assert mastery over me. I was in the rough and tumble of an outdoor world, to take my chance with the rest of its busy number. (202)

The basic elements of the moment are clear: the urban anonymity, the broken ties to an earlier life, the embrace of risk. The new “free man” exists in relief against the life he left behind, particularly the old labor relations of dominance and immobility. Franklin, though his light bonds can hardly compare to those that held Douglass, is like Douglass an illegal runaway from impressed labor, in his case an indentured apprenticeship to his brother that still had three years to run when he lit out for New York and then Philadelphia. His entrance and Douglass’s into the “outside world” of the anonymous city mark their distance from the inside world of family and household service (in both cases family and service were intertwined: Franklin indentured to his brother by his father and Douglass enslaved by a family that in all likelihood included his white father). By breaking the bonds that held them in their old life they assert their revolutionary right to self-determination; by standing in the crowds of the city with no connection to anyone there, they imply that any success that follows can be accounted solely to their own efforts.