Judged by the company he keeps (or loses)

Born Losers
June 16, 2006

Born Losers is an elegantly written, carefully crafted account of how Americans have coped with failure over the past 200 years. With reference to the American Dream and the assumption that anyone should be able to succeed, Scott Sandage, a professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, tells the tale of the nation's unsung losers.

"Businessmen dominate this story," he writes, "because their loss of money and manhood drove legislative, commercial and cultural solutions that redefined failure: from the lost capital of a bankruptcy to the lost chances of a wasted life," he writes.

Sandage focuses mainly on 19th-century America. Around 1800, he argues, "failure was an incident, not an identity". Catastrophes occurred, but they could be overcome. As individualism became more entrenched, failure became more corrosive. Unpaid debts could prevent a man from starting over, regardless of the prevailing ideology.

Sandage speaks in compelling ways of the economic changes that helped to redefine success and failure. Contract theory, he observes, played a major role: "Contract was the framework of achieved identity; by his own toil and acumen, any free man could make deals to advance himself."

But if he could succeed by his own hand, a man could fail in the same way.

Several fascinating chapters in the middle of the book describe the development of commercial intelligence, as new agencies began to assess which businessmen were low credit risks. Their reports appeared in volume after volume of hand-copied figures and notes. But, Sandage suggests, they had a far greater importance: "Such methods managed identity and enterprise, helping discern 'who is good or who is bad' and encouraging self-assessment." In short, business methods came to be used for judging oneself and others. Or, as he notes, in but one of the beautifully crafted sentences in this book, "Credit reports calibrated identity in the language of commodity."

The American Civil War, Sandage argues perceptively, brought a marked change in attitudes, as questions of success and failure took the place of arguments about slavery and freedom. With the rise of big business, and the growth of titans of industry, failure became harder than ever for hapless men to take. As he points out, economic impotence eroded masculine identity wrapped up in making a living.

While the entire book is a pleasure for anyone to read, the prologue and epilogue are special. In the prologue, Sandage uses Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, two of America's greatest social philosophers, to frame his story. He talks about Emerson's disappointment in Thoreau and Thoreau's powerful mid-19th-century observations, among them the calculation that 97 out of 100 men are bound to fail in some way and the comment that "if a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer". The epilogue then recaps the theme that "a century and a half ago we embraced business as the dominant model for our outer and inner lives", with powerful implications for self-esteem.

And, for those most interested in today's world, Sandage brings his story up to the present with a powerful account of Willy Loman, the tragic hero of Arthur Miller's great play Death of a Salesman , and with reference to real contemporary figures ranging from Bob Dylan - "For the loser now/ Will be later to win" - to Janis Joplin, singing "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose".

Allan M. Winkler is professor of history, Miami University, Ohio, US.

Born Losers: A History of Failure in America

Author - Scott A. Sandage
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Pages - 362
Price - £22.95 and £10.95
ISBN - 0 674 01510 X and 02107 X

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