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  • Born Losers: A History of Failure in America
  • Jocelyn Wills
Born Losers: A History of Failure in America. By Scott A. Sandage ( Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005. x plus 362 pp. $35.00).

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. Following the trail of the bankrupt entrepreneurs who internalized a business maxim found in Ralph Waldo Emerson's 1842 journal jottings—"that nobody fails who ought not to fail. There is always a reason, in the man, for his good or bad fortune" (p. 46)—Scott Sandage explores the ways in which nineteenth-century moral philosophers, lawyers, credit reporters, and strivers transformed "failure" from a business condition into "a name for a deficient self, an [achieved] identity in the red" (p. 2).

Sandage locates the foundation of modern America's ideas about failure in the years between 1819 and 1893, when a series of speculative booms collapsed into unsettling financial panics and economic busts. The nation's first experience with "going to smash" in the age of "go-ahead" created a kind of "ethical disorientation" (p. 39) that forced Americans to come to grips with the reality of failure. Despite abundant evidence that market relations had created the context for cut-throat competition, rapid expansion based on credit notes and liens, a credit economy dependent upon confidence in people's abilities to pay during economic crises, and widespread bankruptcy, few critics of capitalism emerged in the young United States. Instead, by shifting their focus from older republican virtues of usefulness, honor, and promises to liberal values of entrepreneurship, money, and contracts, Americans created new narratives that blamed failure on individual indiscretions, deceptions, and incompetence rather than the vagaries of the market economy.

White, middle-class businessmen dominate the pages of Born Losers, and their recorded stories of (and fears about) failure constitute the building blocks on which Sandage reconstructs both an expanding lexicon of American capitalism, as well as the formulaic plots, stock characters, and master narratives crafted to make sense of everyday experiences with failure. Drawing upon a rich array of bankruptcy cases, business ledgers, credit agency reports, diaries, memoirs, personal musings, political mail, self-help pamphlets, success manuals, suicide notes, and the "begging letters" of self-confessed failures (or their wives) who sought the assistance of John D. Rockefeller, Sandage weaves together two central legacies of the nineteenth century: one a "culture of incessant striving" (p. 88) that became the national yardstick for measuring success, first among white men during the antebellum period, and then casting a wider net in the post-Civil War era; and the other a "culture of surveillance" that some resented as an invasion of privacy but others welcomed as a way to redeem their financial [End Page 485] and spiritual selves in an increasingly bureaucratized, market-oriented society. Sandage devotes three chapters to the ante-bellum period, when Americans devised new definitions of manhood and success. The remaining chapters focus on the business and personal strategies developed to judge one's self and others.

The culture of ambition, of incessant striving, flowed from the dilemma of failing in a society that had adopted "the go-ahead principle" of self-made men as a new ideal of achievement. Confounding one's sense of manhood, new ideals centered on the ability to participate in and profit from the expanding market economy. As a result, most men internalized the dilemma of failure and created a success-oriented vocabulary of "real" Americans they could emulate: those "driving wheels," "self-made men," "business men," and "go-ahead men" who constituted the winners in American society. American men not only retooled the future by expanding the capitalist lexicon to include ambition as a national creed. They also created achieved-identity narratives based upon self-criticism, self-beratement, and...


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pp. 485-487
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