Indebted to No One: Stories and Representations of the Self-Made American Mathematician

Sunday, January 5, 2020
3rd Floor West Promenade (New York Hilton)
Ellen Abrams, Cornell University
In February 1894, a profile detailing the life and career of Ohio mathematician William Hoover was published in the first volume of The American Mathematical Monthly. Hoover’s story, like other biographies printed in the Monthly, detailed his humble beginnings, persistent self-study, and honorable career in mathematics. According to his biography, Hoover was “indebted to no one.”

In this presentation, I examine the narrative template that structured biographies like Hoover’s alongside the near-religious celebration of the self-made man in the late-nineteenth-century United States. According to its stories, which were in ample supply in the nineteenth century, America had become a nation of striving entrepreneurs. Key features in the American entrepreneurial tale—like individualism, hard work, and moral character—were featured prominently in American mathematical biographies. Through an exploration of gender, image, and self-making during the professionalization of American mathematics, this presentation suggests relevant links between the cultural history of the United States and the history of American mathematics.

Nearly all late-nineteenth-century biographies published in the American Mathematical Monthly included a photograph that endorsed the heroic dignity of each mathematician’s story. My analysis and presentation of these photographs, which featured well-arranged clothing and facial hair, head and shoulders at three-quarter profile, and eyes gazing into the distance, considers the variety of ways in which manly respectability, learning, and success were represented in Monthly biographies. While the gendering of mathematical knowledge was compounded and renegotiated throughout the late 1800s, particular conceptions of American masculinity were built prominently into both the portraits and written accounts of the self-made mathematician.

My presentation also considers the relationship between American mathematical biographies and the growth of the American mathematics community. Specifically, I argue that while the American mathematics community was under construction around the turn of the twentieth century, so too was the figure of the American mathematician. As mathematicians in the United States became increasingly interested in “modern,” abstract forms of inquiry, they risked being derided and disregarded as out-of-touch theorists. Biographies in the American Mathematical Monthly offered a more grounded image of the American mathematician, in part by pairing his journey into the world of mathematics with his agrarian roots and manly self-reliance. The story of the farm-raised American mathematician, who grew up poor with limited schooling but showed great promise and pluck, helped create the archetype of the self-made American mathematician, at a time when what it meant to be an American mathematician had yet to be fully defined. Overall, the biographies published in the Monthly between its founding in 1894 and the turn of the twentieth century helped align American ideals with the time-honored pursuit of mathematics.

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