Mobilizing the Self

Project by Dr. Aleksandra Boss and Prof. Dr. Martin Klepper

This contributing project examines self-help cultures (guides for self-improvement) in their relation to (white) serial adolescent literature in the 1920s and 1930s and to serial African American commercial publications (newspapers, magazines). The Stratemeyer Syndicate (publishing series such as The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Tom Swift, The Bobbsey Twins) and the Chicago Defender were both established in the same year (1905). Edward Stratemeyer revolutionized the mass-production of children and young adult fiction in New York while, at the same time, Robert S. Abbott initiated a new age of Black news marketing in Chicago. The project explores the successes of both enterprises and the degrees to which both enterprises represented and propagated mobility in its various forms (physical, mental, social) and depended on earlier and contemporaneous narratives of Self-Help and self-improvement (e.g. Horatio Alger in Stratemeyer’s case, Booker T. Washington in Abbott’s, but also authors such as Napoleon Hill or Dale Carnegie). It probes their interconnections with the reformist spirit of the Progressive Era and their identity building functions on an individual, a racial, a gender and a class level (within the respective new white and Black professional and creative middle classes). It examines the concomitant interactions with eugenics, mental hygiene and the therapeutic ethos taking precedence over earlier narratives of self-denial and discipline. The project scrutinizes how these prototypes of commercial mass cultures construct and project identities by affording competing modes of normality and life design.