It is apparently noble to pull oneself up by the bootstraps. Alexander Ewing considers the origins of the idiom and also its practicality ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
The bootstrap is a simple invention: a strap, sewn to industrious footwear to help pull them on. Often underappreciated, it is a vital attachment to rubbery galoshes and cumbersome riding boots. But colloquially the strap has even greater significance. To “pull oneself up by the bootstraps” is to better oneself by one’s own unaided efforts. In "Ulysses", Joyce describes the bootstrapper ideal: those “who had forced their way to the top from the lowest rung by the aid of their bootstraps. Sheer force of natural genius, that. With brains, sir.”
In America, the strap signifies a national vision: in this land of opportunity, the rugged, self-reliant individual must lift himself out of poverty to attain the once unattainable. American mythology fits all its greats with bootstraps. Abraham Lincoln came from a backwoods farm, and some like to imagine Jefferson and Washington tilling the Virginia soil. Bootstrappers built steel mills in Pennsylvania, cars in Detroit and computers in Silicon Valley (bootstrapping is also a computing term). President Barack Obama’s books tell a bootstrap story. “The progression of my life has been uniquely American,” read Sonia Sotomayor in her opening statement during the Supreme Court confirmation hearing. Commentators have fawned over her “up-by-the-bootstraps saga of grit and triumph”, while some conservatives worry that this story disproportionately informs her judicial philosophy.
Sarah Palin is perhaps the most controversial political bootstrapper nowadays. As Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist, has pointed out, Palin’s ascendancy is different from Obama and Sotomayor’s: she did not rise from her humble Wasilla background to attend elite universities such as Columbia and Harvard. She despises elites, and wields her Alaska-brand bootstraps like whips against them, to the adoration of 45% of Americans.
Not everyone has the same affection for bootstraps, however. The British are sceptical, seeing the notion as a symptom of American social unease. “Lifting oneself by one’s bootstraps is an almost entirely American accomplishment,” wrote I.A.R. Wylie in a 1927 article in the Sunday Times London. (Yet the fact that Wylie was an Australian-born, home-schooled woman may undermine her claim. She moved to America in 1917 and never left.) The disadvantage, she continues, is that “there are more second rate people in first class positions than there ought to be…all right so long as there is plenty of room for the first rate man who has no capacity for bootstrapping and so long as there is no sudden crisis.” So perhaps bootstrapping is yet another reason for our financial woes; arrogant, second-rate bootstrapping traders crowded out all of those first-class market experts.
But the larger disagreement over bootstraps is not, in fact, whether they are a good thing. The real controversy is over the source of the idiom itself. According to an ongoing discussion among members of the American Dialect Society, the phrase may or may not have come from "The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen", Rudolf Erich Raspe's 1785 German book of tall tales based on Baron Karl Freidrich von Munchausen, an aristocrat who wrote hyperbolised accounts of his military and hunting exploits. According to some versions, Munchausen leaps out of a swamp by pulling on his bootstraps; others say he manages this by pulling on his pigtail. Both versions are a little absurd.
Origins aside, the bootstrap idiom is not always a compliment. A hard-willed sense of entitlement is sometimes criticised as a delusion of grandeur. “The hopeful individual who expects to raise a weight vastly beyond his strength, belongs to the same class of fools with great expectations, as he who promises to lift himself by his boot straps,” huffed the Chicago Tribune in 1862. Being associated with a fraud like Munchausen is problematic too. (Munchausen syndrome, named in his honour, is a disorder whereby one feigns illness to garner sympathy.) And given the romance of a self-made man, bootstrap success stories can fall prey to cynicism. Frank McCourt was often accused of embellishing his impoverished childhood, even in obituaries after his death.
The idea that we have the power to shape our fate is inherently optimistic, and not always accurate. According to an International Social Survey in 1999, 61% of Americans believe people are rewarded for their efforts. Only 33% of Brits feel the same way. Yet America has become a far less economically mobile society in recent decades--worse than Canada, France, Germany and most Scandinavian countries, according to a recent report from the Brookings Institution and the Pew Charitable Trusts. If Munchausen were still around, he might suggest scrapping the bootstraps and using the pigtail instead.
Picture credit: Pink Sherbet Photography (via Flickr)
(Alexander Ewing is a writer based in Washington, DC.)