Self-help Messiah: Dale Carnegie and Success in Modern America, by Steven Watts (Other Press, 592 pp., $29.95)

In November 1936, in the midst of the Great Depression, the publishing industry scored a stunning victory: a chatty volume of anecdotes and advice started rocketing off bookstore shelves, selling 250,000 copies in its first three months and millions of copies within a few years. How to Win Friends and Influence People promised people hope for less than $2. It described a new way of achieving success, even in tough times. In his thick and readable new biography, Self-help Messiah, Stephen Watts argues that Carnegie reshaped the Protestant work ethic for the modern world. “Much as Franklin Roosevelt saved capitalism during the Great Depression, Dale Carnegie saved the culture of individualism that accompanied it,” he writes. Thanks to Carnegie’s influence, we all accept that hard work is not enough, and that we need people skills as well—an idea that Carnegie exemplified during his fascinating life.

He was born Dale Carnagey in 1888, a “rough-edged, ill-clad farm boy” in rural Missouri. As he’d often recall, his parents worked brutally long days, only to see weather, disease, and other bad luck eat into their farm’s income. They instilled in their son old-fashioned rural values, an aw-shucks style—and a desire to get out. He attended Central Missouri State College, where he began competing in oratory contests (his interest in public speaking probably came from his mother, a skilled lay preacher). He wasn’t any good at first, but he outworked everyone else, and he soon started winning.

After a moderately successful sales career, he arrived in New York City in 1911. As Watts writes, “It was a classic scene pulled directly from the long tradition of success-seeking in American culture”: the farm boy in the big city trying to make it. He worked briefly as an actor, served a short stint in the armed forces during World War I, traveled in Europe (“the more I see of Europe, the more respect I have for America”), wrote, and survived a disastrous first marriage. He taught public speaking at an uptown YMCA, where he learned how to inspire people to conquer their fears.

Carnegie became a keen observer of human nature. As a child, he’d seen his father display the ribbons he won at livestock shows. Writes Watts: “Dale drew an important conclusion: Each individual seeks a feeling of distinction, of being recognized for some kind of achievement, worthiness, or attractiveness, no matter how small.” Carnegie saw that the most effective speeches appealed to desires: to become richer, happier, well-loved. You could convince people of anything if they thought it would benefit them. He became a prodigious note-taker, always on the lookout for useful stories and anecdotes. His courses grew more popular, and he traveled the country giving them. He teamed up with major corporations to train their employees—a lucrative sideline. And he took to the radio, using the new medium as a platform to reach even more people.

The Depression only lifted him to new heights. People became hungry for advice just as the rise of large conglomerates meant that success relied not only on individual achievement, but also on mobilizing others toward common purposes. Simon & Schuster approached Carnegie about turning his lectures into a book (he’d already written a text on public speaking), and the result was the iconic self-help book—one whose influence remains profound today. Carnegie’s writing was “filled with snappy prose and abundant anecdotes” and “drew lessons from real individuals who had succeeded at overcoming stressful problems that threatened their lives,” Watts writes. Above all, it was “down-to-earth and useful.” He even anticipates the modern taste for “clickable” section titles: Six Ways to Make People Like You, Twelve Ways to Win People to Your Way of Thinking.

Much of Carnegie’s advice boils down to being nice (smile and “become genuinely interested in other people”). But the book offers a complex picture of virtue. Carnegie insisted that “sincerity is the very soul of eloquence,” yet How to Win Friends is full of advice that amounts to manipulating people: compliment them so that they’ll do what you want; let them think the idea is theirs. “If you know what people want and can show them that they will get it by following your proposals, success is yours,” Carnegie noted. Of course, the American success ethic is complicated, too. We glorify honesty and hard work, but we also love the colorful personality who wins people over.

Carnegie embodied these complexities in his own life. He extolled simple rural virtues, yet his wealth enabled less virtuous behavior. He most likely fathered a child with a married woman, an episode about which Watts reveals new details. Carnegie married a much younger woman late in life, and he showered cash on friends and family to smooth ruffled feathers. Presumably he let people believe that his generosity was their idea.

“Carnegie,” Watts writes, “did not leave American culture where he found it.” Indeed, we have become a self-help nation. A commemorative service held at Yankee Stadium two weeks after the 9/11 attacks featured Oprah Winfrey as master of ceremonies. The talk show hostess’s rags-to-riches story has some similarities to Carnegie’s. “In this time of national tragedy, instead of a political or religious leader striding forward to seize the moment, it was America’s leading representative of the modern self-help culture who salved the nation’s wounds and affirmed its highest aspirations,” Watts writes. “Such a thing would have seemed preposterous in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor in 1941.”

Readers might ponder the oddity of a 500-page tome about someone who achieved fame by writing a breezy and relatively short book. Sometimes Watts loses himself in his research. He repeats examples from Carnegie’s book at different points, and his occasional Freudian and religious interpretations weigh things down. But when he sticks to his subject, he paints a fascinating picture of a man who “struggled to accommodate his yearning for affluence with a genuine respect for moral virtues” and whose story “is, in essence, the story of America itself in a dynamic era of change.”


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