A People's History of the United States Questions and Answers
by Howard Zinn

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In A People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn describes stories of "rags to riches" as what?

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Margaret Mccarney eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Zinn discusses the robber baron era in chapter 11 of his A People's History of the United States. The Horatio Alger story of "rags to riches" was a key component of the late-nineteenth-century American ethos, informing economic, social, and moral theories. Common belief held that the rich were rich because they were more talented, were more intelligent, or worked harder than everyone else (or some combination of all three). The poor were poor because they were less gifted but also because they were lazier. Many common cliches (e.g., "put your nose to the grindstone," "roll up your shirt sleeves"), justified rewarding the capitalists, often at the direct expense of the working poor. The few rich men who did rise to great wealth and success from poverty were used to stand for all wealthy people, regardless of whether the same backstory was appropriate or not. According to Zinn,

While some multimillionaires started in poverty, most did not. A study of the origins of 303 textile, railroad and steel executives of the 1870s showed that 90 percent came from middle- or upper-class families. The Horatio Alger stories of "rags to riches" were true for a few men, but mostly a myth, and a useful myth for control.

This myth fueled an increasing divide between the rich and the poor, the capitalists and the laborers. It also informed the potent but undefinable myth of the American Dream. While precise definitions of what this Dream should include vary, the idea of opportunity to create personal wealth is a fundamental part of the Dream and one that became increasingly distant during this period of rapid consolidation of wealth.

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The answer to this can be found in Chapter 11 of the book.  In this chapter, Zinn is arguing that the late 1800s were a time when the "robber barons" and other capitalists dominated the United States and ran it for their own benefit.  In keeping with this, Zinn says that 

The Horatio Alger stories of "rags to riches" were true for a few men, but mostly a myth, and a useful myth for control.

What Zinn is saying is that it was very hard for a poor person to get ahead in the America of this time.  However, it was important for the rich to maintain the illusion that poor people could go from "rags to riches."  This helped to control the poor people because it prevented them from truly rebelling.  They could feel that America had a just system full of opportunity in which they (or their children) could get rich if they worked hard and were a little lucky.  This kept the poor relatively content and unwilling to rebel.

 

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