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.
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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.
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--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.
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)