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Born Losers: A History of Failure in America.

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 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 self-made confessionals that resonated with early American Protestantism and stressed the hope for salvation from their "shipwrecked" lives. By mid-century, with the assistance of the penny press, chromolithography, and contract theory--"by his own toil and acumen, any free man could make deals to advance himself" (p. 63)--white American men had also learned to rationalize their losses and to esteem as winners those who could dust themselves off and rejoin the race for riches with renewed energy. The "reason in a man" provided the moral solution to the problem of failure, while bankruptcy legislation surfaced as a legal remedy to financial collapse.

By the 1840s, a culture of surveillance had emerged as well, first as a business solution to the credit economy, then later as a personal strategy to rejoin the striver's race. Dun & Bradstreet (and other reporting agencies') credit ledgers ranked men by their individual achievements and credit worthiness, in ways that "calibrated [personal] identity in the language of commodity." (p. 134); Annotating the lives of "Number One," "good for nothing," and "2nd-" or "3rd-rate" businessmen, credit reports made men's lives available for inspection, reporting, and sale. Cast in "scientific" as well as moral terms, surveillance reports on "com-modified" men also promised to take some of the risk out of whom one could trust in the whirligig of the credit-based economy. As the case of John Beard-sley vs. Tappan revealed, however, credit reports also exposed trade and family secrets, and made American families vulnerable to surveillance networks that could transform gossip into the "truths" that could ruin lives. By the 1890s, in attempts to redress such vulnerabilities, many "losers" offered up their family secrets as a solution to the crisis of identity formation. Confessing their failures to successful strangers, begging-letter writers "asked to be judged as complex characters rather than as superficial commodities" (p. 242). The failed, "forgotten" men and women of the market economy thus created the last in a series of narratives that made the "chance to strive" a national goal and a moral imperative. By 1900, ordinary men and women no longer merely feared falling victim to confidence men, speculative ventures, business failures, and false reports; they also feared the stigma of being seen as standing still in a society where striving had become a moral obligation

Like all important books, Born Losers will spark debate. Sandage draws broad conclusions from narratives constructed by white businessmen (most of whom had connections of some kind to Americans who exemplified "success"). For example, Born Losers has little to say about ordinary American workers--the many blue-, white-, and pink-collar ones who emerged with the expansion of capitalism, and either supported or challenged the "ideology of achieved identity." Regardless, Sandage makes a cogent case for studying more of these "forgotten" men and women, and for thinking more deeply about the costs of employing "business as the dominant model for [judging] outer and inner lives" (p. 265). By concluding that failure "is not the dark side of the American Dream [but rather] the foundation of it" (p. 278), Sandage challenges historians to re-examine the so-called "losers" and "winners" in American life. That alone makes Born Losers a significant contribution to the expanding literature on failure. But he also raises other important questions about the less-than-lovely side of American culture and global market relations, including those centered on the "going-to-smash" side of financial booms and busts; the "psychology of denial" about impending ruin that fuels giddy speculation, over-capitalization, and credit dependence; the vicissitudes of downward mobility and unequal opportunities; and the nervous conditions resulting from the living-to-work and living-to-keep-up mentalites that flow from ceaseless, thundering ambitions to get ahead, to outspend and out-maneuver competition by any means possible, to outdistance failure, and, above all, to avoid the taint of "averageness," of standing still, of "sinking in the world," and of the "low ambition [that now] offends Americans even more than low achievement" (p. 2). (1)

Jocelyn Wills

Brooklyn College, City University of New York


1. For an excellent discussion of the "psychology of denial," see Edward J. Balleisen, Navigating Failure: Bankruptcy and Commercial Society in Antebellum America (2001). A sampling of other works germane to the topic include Juliet B. Schor, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (1992) and The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don't Need (1999); Teresa A. Sullivan, Elizabeth Warren, and Jay West-brook, The Fragile Middle Class: Americans in Debt (2001); Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (2002); Bruce H. Mann, Republic of Debtors: Bankruptcy in the Age of American Independence (2002); Thomas Augst, The Clerk's Tale: Young Men and Moral Life in Nineteenth-Century America (2003); and Steve Fraser, Every Man a Speculator: A History of Wall Street in American Life (2005).
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Author:Wills, Jocelyn
Publication:Journal of Social History
Date:Dec 22, 2006
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