A book about failure? In America? Sandage (History/Carnegie Mellon)
presents a darker side of the American Dream, complete with case
studies and ephemera. He carefully considers the 19th-century's
"go-ahead" US, which saw the rise of the businessman's vocation,
and presents a stark portrayal of our national habit of speaking
grandly while falling short of all the grand talk. It was a time of
speculators, flunkies, and humbugs. Ben Franklin's maxims were
popular. P.T. Barnum's bunkum was effulgent. Proclaiming
self-reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson found the cause of a man's
failure lay within himself. To track the financially feckless and
to inform suppliers of credit risks, ubiquitous mercantile
reporting agencies, like Mr. Dun and Mr. Bradstreet's, flourished,
though they often provided misinformation as a coup de grace to a
struggling tradesman. Keeping book on good-for-nothing losers
started with local reporters (young Abraham Lincoln was said to be
one). And so ledgers recorded the sorry handiwork of self-made men.
Some strivers who once raised themselves by their own bootstraps
but were finally without a shoestring resorted to new federal
bankruptcy legislation that was designed to relieve legal debt, not
necessarily the moral kind. Others wrote begging letters to titans
of the Gilded Age. (The Rockefellers, among others, kept their
pleaders' correspondence filed away for history.) The stories of
the gaunt, ragged wraiths pictured in the garish chromolithographs
of the day are brought to life here in mournful numbers. Taking us
to the present, Sandage summons the tragic figure of Willy Loman,
Arthur Miller's dead salesman, who somehow prepared a place for
those who lost the rat race in our culture. There's "something of a
market niche" for losers, the author finds, especially in pop
music. Whether that niche contains many readers standing by for a
straightforward study that hangs with left-behinds of the 1800s is
an open question. An earnest entry in an emerging academic
discipline, but a dreary topic for recreational reading. (Kirkus
What makes somebody a Loser, a person doomed to unfulfilled dreams
and humiliation? Nobody is born to lose, and yet failure embodies
our worst fears. The Loser is our national bogeyman, and his
history over the past two hundred years reveals the dark side of
success, how economic striving reshaped the self and soul of
From colonial days to the Columbine tragedy, Scott Sandage
explores how failure evolved from a business loss into a
personality deficit, from a career setback to a gauge of our
self-worth. From hundreds of private diaries, family letters,
business records, and even early credit reports, Sandage
reconstructs the dramas of real-life Willy Lomans. He unearths
their confessions and denials, foolish hopes and lost faith,
sticking places and changing times. Dreamers, suckers, and nobodies
come to life in the major scenes of American history, like the
Civil War and the approach of big business, showing how the
national quest for success remade the individual ordeal of
"Born Losers" is a pioneering work of American cultural
history, which connects everyday attitudes and anxieties about
failure to lofty ideals of individualism and salesmanship of self.
Sandage's storytelling will resonate with all of us as it brings to
life forgotten men and women who wrestled with The Loser--the label
and the experience--in the days when American capitalism was
building a nation of winners.
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