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Reviewed by:
  • Born Losers: A History of Failure in America
  • Jonathan Bean
Scott A. Sandage. Born Losers: A History of Failure in America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005. x + 362 pp. ISBN 0-674-01510-X, $35.00 (cloth).

Born Losers is a masterpiece that maps the misery of misfit business failures in success-crazed, nineteenth-century America. The narrative sparkles with lively anecdotes, pithy quotes from famous people and failures, and Sandage's own exquisite prose, which rivals the catchy lines of the ubiquitous success manuals. Skeptical scholars will find the research provocative because Sandage documents the wide range of sources available to study the "forgotten men" of "the other nineteenth century" (p. 3): "private letters, diaries, business records, bankruptcy cases, suicide notes, political mail, credit agency reports, charity requests, and memoirs" (p. 9). By exploring the cultural (and personal) meaning of failure, Born Losers deserves a wide audience among business and cultural historians of the nineteenth century. [End Page 531]

The book divides into several parts; a lengthy prologue provides a useful overview. The beginning chapters deal with the antebellum success gospel, which pinned failure on character flaws despite the volatile nature of the credit economy. The middle chapters explore the birth and growth of Dun & Bradstreet, a "Central Intelligence Agency" that espied men's characters and transformed them into "rateable souls" (p. 149). In the final section on post–Civil War America, bankrupt "white slaves" found a political voice by comparing their lot to the emancipated freedpeople: They deserved leniency and aid, if only to preserve their manhood, and noted that the war caused mass business failure when southerners refused to repay their debts. A fascinating chapter on the rise of big business and the genre of "begging letters" reveals how some failures sought charity and work from Rockefeller or Carnegie by appealing to family values: Help me, so I may provide for my family. This is one of the few chapters that deals extensively with the plight of wives married to "losers," as women were often the authors of "begging letters." The epilogue explores twentieth-century criticism of the success gospel, a theme that Sandage also explores in the main part of the book. While obviously sympathetic to the critics of American business culture (Thoreau appears frequently), Sandage refrains from indulging in polemics.

The central theme of Born Losers is that nineteenth-century men equated their personal identity and masculinity with success or failure. Rather than lash out at impersonal forces as the cause of their failure, they internalized it to the point of despair or suicide. Those who survived physically led emotionally circumscribed lives, as the surrounding culture stigmatized them as "bankrupts, deadbeats, broken men, down-and-outers, bad risk, good-for-nothings, no-accounts, third-raters, flunkies, little men, loafers, small fries, small potatoes, old fogies, goners, flops, has-beens, ne'er-do-wells, nobodies, forgotten men" (p. 6).

Sandage's attention to language is interesting and informative. For example, the terminology of credit reports ("A-1," "third-rate," "no-account") entered the lexicon of American slang while mathematically rating men as relative winners or losers in life. Yet in America's topsy-turvy economy, the winners could not rest easy. A corollary to the success-makes-the-man philosophy was that failure could strike at any moment. This was an age of anxiety for failures, winners, and those treading water.

Yet some individuals and companies benefited from the failure of others. Bankruptcy lawyers were keen observers of failure, as was the Dun & Bradstreet (D&B) Company—a firm that reached into every corner of North America to rate the credit risks of businesspeople. By [End Page 532] recording rumors and gossip about a man's business and personal affairs, D&B raised issues of privacy that still plague Americans. A minor criticism is that we read that the "moral fables and credit reports" of D&B "sold well," but we do not learn who subscribed (p. 148). Were they cheap enough to find a popular audience more interested in learning the gossip about a neighbor than his credit rating?

One issue that Sandage fails to explore is how some losers gave up...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1467-2235
Print ISSN
1467-2227
Pages
pp. 531-533
Launched on MUSE
2005-08-25
Open Access
No
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