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Born Losers: A History of Failure in America [Hardcover]

Scott A. Sandage

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Book Description

Jan. 30 2005

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 America.

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 failure.

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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From Publishers Weekly

It's a most familiar refrain of American life: work hard and prosper. That the dream of triumphant prosperity so consistently and perplexingly eludes so many, despite heroic effort and toil, is, alas, also familiar. Hardly surprising, argues Carnegie Mellon historian Sandage: it turns out that Americans are much less Andrew Carnegie and more Willy Loman. Why? In the early days of the republic, Protestant predestination and the uniquely democratic promise of reward based on a meritocracy of effort and talent unleashed the dynamic but often unfocused energies of untold numbers of self-styled frontier entrepreneurs. By the 19th century, the myth of the self-made man had become a test of identity and self-worth. A few succeeded beyond their wildest expectations but, says Sandage, most Americans faced unexpected and heartbreaking ruin. Sandage has done an admirable job of culling diaries and letters to tell their stories. Most compelling are the "begging letters" written by women to outstanding capitalists on behalf of their ruined husbands. Regrettably, these individual snapshots fail to cohere into a fully comprehensive portrait of the personal and social psychology of failure. That failure diminished a man is hardly revelatory, nor does it constitute the level of specific historical analysis one expects. 30 b&w photos; 30 b&w illus.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Review

Americans do not like to talk about failure. It is the underside of an American dream that stresses winning over losing, succeeding over succumbing. But not everyone makes it and the story of failure has a history that Scott Sandage probes with subtlety and grace in this impressive work of cultural history. Born Losers is deeply researched, carefully argued, and well written. His examination of commercial failure and the problems of identity goes a long way toward reconfiguring our understanding of the American dream.
--Louis P. Masur, author of 1831: Year of Eclipse

Born Losers is a beautiful piece of writing. Scott Sandage is history's Dickens; his bleak house, the late nineteenth century world of almost anonymous American men who failed. With wit and sympathy, Sandage illuminates the grey world of credit evaluation, a little studied smothering arm of capitalism. This is history as it should be, a work of art exploring the social cost of our past.
--William S. McFeely, author of Grant: a Biography

Here is a feast of historical insight, personal narrative, and literary panache. With his focus on the making of economic failure, Sandage enables us to see and understand 19th century America in an entirely new, provocatively sober way... A fascinating book.
--Michael Kazin, author of The Populist Persuasion: An American History

I found Born Losers a confirmation of an old belief that in American history there is a crash in every generation sufficient to mark us with a kind of congenital fear of failure. This is a bright light on a buried strain in the evolution of the United States.
--Arthur Miller

In this book about the cultural ramifications of economic failure in nineteenth-century America, Sandage has taken on an important and underexamined subject and scrutinized it in inventive ways, using unexpected and largely unmined sources.
--Benjamin Schwarz (The Atlantic 2005-01-01)

Born Losers, admirably concise and formidably researched, is the history of America's reverse Horatio Algers. Scott A. Sandage, an associate professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University, logged a decade in the library to produce what amounts to an authoritative chronicle of the risks of lending and borrowing in 19th century America (although the book ranges well into the 20th).
--James Grant (Wall Street Journal 2005-01-21)

By examining the lives and careers of a number of businessmen who failed during the 19th century, [Sandage] portrays what we reflexively think of as the darker side of the American dream but what is, in reality, an only slightly exaggerated mirror of the reality with which ordinary people--i.e., thee and me--are fated to contend...For the most part Born Losers is readable, interesting and thoroughly researched...We understand the human side of failure far more keenly than we did a couple of centuries ago, but we still fear it and still believe--against all the evidence--that somehow we can and will escape it.
--Jonathan Yardley (Washington Post 2005-01-30)

In Scott Sandage's provocative new study, Born Losers, the Carnegie Mellon University professor notes that not long ago, 'loser' meant only that a person had lost money or a house. It described an event; it didn't declare a person completely worthless. His study examines how we came to make that change, how we internalized it and enshrined it in our culture...Sandage has mined a dark, rich vein, and, as in his deeply felt epilogue, he can write with great compassion.
--Jerome Weeks (Dallas Morning News 2005-03-14)

The book presents a convincing argument and is winningly alive to literary parallels--success may be the grand theme of American history, but failures, from Bartleby through Gatsby to Willy Loman, dominate its literature.
--Robert Hanks (Daily Telegraph 2005-03-19)

[A] densely packed history of capitalism's dark side...Sandage's history of another America that paved the way for this one is instructive and fascinating.
--Bob Hoover (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2005-02-06)

This is a fascinating book, both as history and moral history. The decade or so Sandage spent on it has paid off in its copious scholarship and polished writing. His epigrammatic style is thought provoking...The mostly 19th century history is revelatory, but his epilogue bringing his topic into the present, through the Great Depression, Willy Loman and Charlie Brown, to Bob Dylan, is positively scintillating.
--William S. Kowinski (Books in Heat 2005-02-11)

Born Losers rifles through diaries and financial records, piecing together an engaging tale of 19th-century America as seen from the bottom of the barrel. Peeking into long-forgotten bankruptcy cases, the author provides poignant glimpses of men ensnared in Bleak House-style webs of misery. Society had little sympathy for these ruined creatures, often honest men ambushed by hard times. The newly popular notion that anyone could prosper in America led people to blame those who didn't.
--Joy Press (Village Voice 2004-12-24)

Words like 'loser' and 'failure' have been in our vocabulary since at least the 16th century, but only recently have they come to describe a person's moral condition. How this happened and what constitutes failure as we understand it today are the subject of Scott A. Sandage's new book...Through fascinating testimonies from diaries, credit reports and court records, Sandage gives the 'loser' a significant--if not defining--role in the development of the institutions and values that emerged from the 19th century and that continue to inform our experience today...Making illuminating use of Weber, Emerson, Tocqueville and Thoreau, among others, Sandage identifies the beliefs that led to America's peculiar--if not intemperate--embrace of business as a national religion and the transference of old morals onto a new map. Locating vice in the individual to explain business failures was simply a reconfiguration of the doctrine of predestination, which held that some are saved and others condemned. Likewise in the market there were born winners and born losers; the central challenge of business was knowing one from the other...The glorification of personal accountability is a curious, if not damaging, tradition, and Sandage does a marvelous job of tracing its evolution.
--Maria Fish (San Francisco Chronicle 2005-03-06)

Scott Sandage has written a splendid book...A new American generation pushes its economic faith about the world. Everyone ought to race for success and let the devil take the hindmost (as the original Puritans quite literally expected him to). Sandage has done a marvellous job exploring the dark side of this peculiar American gospel: the blithe judgment that failure reflects a personal defect, that want is a species of sin, and the insistence that the sources of wealth and poverty lie entirely 'in the man.'
--James Morone (London Review of Books 2005-05-19)

In his book, Sandage explains how the 19th century changed people's ideas about winning and losing.
--Pat Burson (Newsday 2005-06-06)

Sandage follows a paper trail that reveals the hidden history of pessimism in a culture of optimism. Besides documents frequently examined by historians--diaries and correspondence, for example--he explores genres such as business manuals, credit reports and even suicide notes...Ultimately, Sandage tells the story of losers to expose the history of the 'culture of personality' in capitalist America. 'We can learn a great deal about our culture and about ourselves from the stories of Americans who failed,' he insists. And that history, he writes, shows that we have 'embraced business as the dominant model for our outer and inner lives.'
--Alex Lichtenstein (Houston Chronicle 2005-05-13)

Drawing on a prodigious amount of research into two centuries of diaries, self-help books, credit reports and legal cases, Sandage paints a portrait gallery of American 'broken men, down-and-outers, no-accounts, third-raters, small fries, small potatoes,...ne'er-do-wells (and) nobodies.'
--Andrew Stark (Times Literary Supplement 2005-05-27)

Sandage's book is a rich and fascinating exposition of how failure, once deemed an accident of fortune, has been turned into an ontological category, an explanation of fate based on an essence of the individual, an intangible identity bequeathed at birth. It is a harsh and cruel judgment, usually disguised as condescension or pity. For children and teenagers, it is a taunt--Loser!--that consigns the designee to hell...This is the sort of deeply critical and deeply caring book that is too seldom seen in cultural studies...You cannot come away from this elegant book without a heightened awareness of the devastating costs of the go-ahead mandate for the downsized corporate executive, the bank teller denied a promotion year after year, the college graduate struggling to spring loose of internships to land a real job.
--Christine Stansell (New Republic 2005-08-08)

[O]ne would be the loser for taking a pass on this book, for Scott Sandage is a historian of exceptional gifts, and those gift--a rich historical imagination, and keen archival eye and a carefully crafted prose style—make Born Losers a richly rewarding read...Born Losers belongs to that marvelously mixed genre of retrospective ethnography and philosophical meditation that the anthropologist Clifford Geertz has called "the social history of the moral imagination."
--Jean-Christophe Agnew (Business History Review)

Born Losers is an elegantly written, carefully crafted account of how Americans have coped with failure over the past 200 years...The entire book is a pleasure for anyone to read.
--Allan Winkler (Times Higher Education Supplement 2006-06-16)

This long-anticipated, thought-provoking cultural history of failure in the United States deserves a punch-line beginning. Born Losers is a must read for anyone interested in American identity formation, the expansion of capitalism as political-economy and article of faith, the construction of economic striving as a moral imperative, and the psychological and social costs of a national ideology centered on self-reliance and economic ambition as the hallmarks of a successful life...Like all important books, Born Losers will spark debate. Sandage draws broad conclusions from narratives constructed by white businessmen (most of whom had connections of some kind to Americans who exemplified "success")...By concluding that failure "is not the dark side of the American Dream [but rather] the foundation of it," Sandage challenges historians to reexamine the so-called "losers" and "winners" in American life. That alone makes Born Losers a significant contribution to the expanding literature on failure. But he also raises other important questions about the less-than-lovely side of American culture and global market relations.
--Jocelyn Wills (Journal of Social History 2006-12-22)

Sandage offers a poignant cultural account of 19th-century economic hardships and the pitiable archetype they gave birth to: the dismal "plodder," the man who was a "failure." He was the fellow who couldn't get ahead, who couldn't break through and probably never would. The fatal flaw that supposedly distinguished these born nonentities was their lack, it was thought, of a certain crucial vitality. In an age that equated vigor with virtue, this weakness was tantamount to immorality. To make the loser feel even worse about himself, his glorious antithesis--the striver, the up-and-comer--was being defined at the same time. Writers promoting the secrets of success in the rough game of industrial capitalism rendered a verdict on economic failure that still endures: it's never an accident. The success people have is determined by who they are--or rather, by who they aren't--and not by circumstances. This brutish superstition persists, despite our increasingly scientific perspective on economic and financial developments. When experts wielding charts and graphs refer to "bottoms" and spells of "negative growth," the jobless take scant consolation, I have a hunch. A nation that thinks of material well-being as the prize in a competition or a race instills in its citizens a moral horror of ever giving up, even if the contest can have few winners and the course is all uphill.
--Walter Kirn (New York Times Magazine 2009-05-10)

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 3.9 out of 5 stars  11 reviews
28 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thorough, interesting, well-written history July 30 2006
By Diverse - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
this book is full of facts, yet easy to read.

The introduction is amazing. (You can see if you'll

like the book by reading the intro online.)

The book gracefully builds from the intro,

giving more information and examples.

The author is a historian, and uses footnotes

and includes a detailed bibliography.

If you want to learn a lot about social attitudes

towards business success/failure around 100 years ago,

and also understand the social and business forces

that helped the successful and hindered the 'failures',

you'll want to read this book.

I chose this book because i want to learn why

some people succeed and some people fail, even though

both try and are intelligent.

The self-help books state 'hard work = success'.

Yet you and I know that's not always true.

Success doesn't result solely from effort.

And Failure doesn't always occur because a person was lazy.

There are a lot of uncontrollable variables in any persons success or failure.

If effort and preparation were all that are necessary, then why is Bill Gates (a college dropout), Larry Ellison (Oracle Corp) (a college dropout), Russell Simmons (Hip-hop record producer, college dropout) all much wealthier than 99% of the Ivy league MBA's who graduated in the last 20 years?

The author is able to present many examples, and give explanations to support his theories.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A part of history not told Dec 28 2009
By Valorie T. - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
In Born Losers: A History of Failure in America, author Scott A. Sandage points out that the nineteenth century, despite being an age of capitalism, industrialization, and promise, was also an age of great economic hardship and loss for men and women who together created a culture of failure that personally and morally defined them. Society and the government held people individually accountable for failure despite circumstance, and relief was hard to come by because the government did not have the systems in place to manage it. When failure occurred, it was "a reason, in the man." The prevailing idea that "no one fails who ought not fail" identified men to such a point that failure was a matter of personal worth, morality, and virtue. That only a man himself could be blamed for failure no matter the cause created a multitude of dynamics: drive vs. risk, innovation vs. safety, and failure vs. the possibility of any future success. Once failure was stuck to you and became a part of your identity, it was a hard label to shake. Especially with the birth of Tappan's very first credit report agency that sent out personal information to aid in assessing the possible risk and success of others.

Sandage's greatest strength lies in his usage of primary source documents and the many stories and examples they provide his book. They, large in number, not only give creditability to the story, but they raise interest so that the book is enjoyable to read. It is an illuminating and fun look at something that is normally depressing in nature--failure and stigma placed on personal identity. It is obvious by the number of sources used and documented that Sandage has put a great deal of research into the book. In the sense that it is well researched and documented, it is a reputable piece of scholarship for something paid little attention to. Sandage also suitably links the identity of failure to today by tracing how ideas and perceptions formed into what modern people think and feel. There is a clear connection between past and present, which gives the book modern day relevancy.

I would have liked, though, a section to provide a less narrow focus. Perhaps not for the whole book, because the subject itself makes it necessary to focus on specifics, but a chapter to help place failure within the larger scheme of things. While Sandage provides a great number of failure stories, his success stories are few and far between such that it is hard to get a grasp of whether failure was as prevalent and powerful as made to seem suggested by primary source evidence and first hand accounts. It is impossible to tell from the book if failure, while still being a serious issue of self identity and crisis, was a small percentage as compared to relative successes. The evidence given begs the question: would the government have acted faster to aid those in need if failure was truly so prevalent? The answer is: I don't know. Nevertheless, the question and answer could have been addressed to further illuminate the culture of failure and its political ramifications. It would have also helped to frame the larger scope of American life and identity to pay more attention to the successes and contributions of women, the poor, and laborers. While not as numerous or as devastating as riches to rags middle class male business failure/success stories, as culture defined these things, it would still serve to paint a more complete image of the situation experienced by all of America, not just business men. This would also include black men and a more in depth look at how failure and success came to define them during the Antebellum and Reconstruction years.

Sandage does not try to define, "what is failure?" That is not the point of the book or his reasons for writing it. The book is about how failure was perceived and how it came to define people and their worth. Failure is simply what it is: a lack of success. Born Losers was written to tell the other side of America in an age of trumped success and unlimited possibility.

Sandage is not only a great historian, but an excellent storyteller. There is no droning of dry, fact-by fact history here. Sandage paints a picture that reads as easily and fun as a novel, even more entertaining because he is speaking of something real and relevant. There is a lot of humor in the story, but none done out of disrespect. The book, while funny and fun, stays respectful to the people involved. You will definitely feel like you got something out of this book by the time you put it down, whether it be from the vast knowledge or the pure entertainment value. We all love to laugh at tragedy, after all, especially when it is not our own.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Success gets the glory -- but failure is all around Sept. 7 2009
By ignacio f. - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This deals with the usually offstage history of failure and failures, what happens to them, what they have in common -- and how here in America we define ourselves as successful or failed. That is, we define our lives in business terms.

But this is a colorful, even rollicking at times book, anything but programmatic or dry. One chapter, for example, deals with the literary genre of begging letters sent to John D. Rockefeller. I was stimulated and entertained. This may be a book I'll want to reread at some point.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A point of view rarely told Aug. 31 2013
By TLR - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
America has always been a country full of people getting and grabbing, hustling and taking, chasing after their visions of "success." Americans are taught to define their lives by their careers, their bank accounts, the size of their homes and cars. But the reality is that many (perhaps most) Americans are not very successful, and the result is disappointment, shame and disillusionment. A struggling person is expected to blame himself, not the social and economic system he is a part of.

Sandage collections numerous historical accounts that demonstrate how every generation of Americans has experienced the same feeling of being caught in a game they can't win. The enormous number of lives wasted and destroyed chasing after "success" is quite depressing. One would hope we could learn something from the past. This book can be a start.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An odd, enjoyable book June 26 2013
By PHIL - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book spends a great deal of time on the nascent business of credit reporting in the 1800s. This was a dawn of the information age, an industry that made its money doing nothing but collecting, indexing, and reporting data. Many passages of these reports are included here, some of which were very literature-like, and quite far from today's condensed FICO-type numbers. There was much room for human error and high-handedness. Plenty of people subjected to having their identities described in accounts outside their control (but for court actions, some successful, some not), thus affecting their creditworthiness, as generated by strangers temporarily poking around town, must have felt a kind of reputational nervousness not unlike common to our times. This book also explores historical narratives of success and failure in the USA, along with some who attempted to reject that paradigm (with Henry David Thoreau springing immediately to mind).

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