All famous academics have coined a concept, so in a wave of megalomania I thought I should do one too. Autofabrication. Basically, it is a response to the fact that Stephen Greenblatt’s term self-fashioning is often misused as meaning “creating one’s own public image”. Greenblatt meant it to refer to the creation of selves (i.e. individuals, persons) by the culture and ideology that produced them. Thus, self-fashioning, as Greenblatt uses it, is a non-autonomous process. Especially a political leader is fashioned by the needs of (usually) his society – a version of the age-old cliché that societies get the leaders they deserve.
However, leaders also try to influence their own public images (not the same as selves!) and some cultures particularly encourage this (they fashion leaders that take active charge of their image). This is what I call autofabrication. I argue that FDR’s self must indeed, like others, have been fashioned ideologically by his culture, but that he was at the same time particularly successful at taking the initiative in fabricating his own public image. He sensed, as it were, that American culture was about to change in a particular direction, and steered his own image management in that direction, which is partly why it always seems as if he was ahead of his time.
For instance, Roosevelt grew up in a society that marginalized the disabled entirely. When he campaigned for the presidency, he accordingly had to hide that he could not walk. Later however, when he drew attention to his disease history by setting up the March of Dimes (a charity to find a polio vaccination that quickly became America’s largest), he recognized that his disability could – and, as it turned out, in the future would – be cast as a source and proof of grit and resilience to overcome crises.