BORN LOSERS: A History of Failure in America. By Scott A. Sandage. Harvard Univ. Press. 362 pp. $35
Stock options, year-end bonuses, vacation houses, designer clothes—these are the measures of American achievement. The winners in this relentlessly aggressive game get lionized. Donald Trump, for instance, is the author or subject of some 15 books, not to mention his starring role in the reality-TV show The Apprentice. But what of those who fall short? In this important and entertaining work, Scott Sandage sets out to chronicle some of “America’s unsung losers: men who failed in a nation that worships success.”
A history professor at Carnegie Mellon University, Sandage focuses on the 19th century, an era of much economic upheaval in America. While industrialists and robber barons built their fortunes, financial panics occurred regularly. Bank closings, crop failures, and other disasters could impoverish families overnight. Diaries and I have struggled very hard to get along and sacrificed all my comforts,” a Philadelphia merchant wrote during the panic of 1819, but “what is to become of us . . . I know not.” When he went bankrupt soon after, the merchant declared that his “days of sentiment have gone”; from now on, “the sine qua non is money.”
Money became the sine qua non of self-worth, too. Even though the volatile worlds of business and finance took almost no account of personal merit, failure was commonly deemed to be your fault. Along the way, the 19th-century economy transformed the nation’s criteria for evaluating individuals: “Character,” a set of traits rooted in traditional morality, gradually gave way to “personality,” a more amorphous set of traits thought likely to bring prosperity. The expression “I feel like a failure,” Sandage notes, “comes so naturally that we forget it is a figure of speech: the language of business applied to the soul.”
In the archives of New York’s Mercantile Agency, a predecessor to Dun & Bradstreet, Sandage unearthed red-leather volumes that recount the financial affairs of thousands of businesses and individuals. Beginning in 1841, the Mercantile packaged and sold the era’s most sophisticated commercial intelligence. It gathered data on almost every triumph and reversal of fortune from a network of informers, including a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. The Mercantile’s reports exemplify the emerging cult of success, with their combination of empirical rigor, bourgeois moralism, and unsparing criticism of those who fell short (“has no energy & will never make a dollar”). Sandage’s recovery of these riches alone is worth the price of the book.
From college admissions to unemployment, success remains the American barometer of individual worth. How does it feel to be Willy Loman in a nation that idolizes Bill Gates? Sandage addresses contemporary culture only briefly, and the discussion is sometimes awkwardly grafted onto his historical narrative. But that’s a minor flaw in a major contribution to American social history.