A book about failure? In America?
Sandage (History/Carnegie Mellon) presents a darker side of the American Dream, complete with case studies and ephemera. He carefully considers the 19th-century’s “go-ahead” US, which saw the rise of the businessman’s vocation, and presents a stark portrayal of our national habit of speaking grandly while falling short of all the grand talk. It was a time of speculators, flunkies, and humbugs. Ben Franklin’s maxims were popular. P.T. Barnum’s bunkum was effulgent. Proclaiming self-reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson found the cause of a man’s failure lay within himself. To track the financially feckless and to inform suppliers of credit risks, ubiquitous mercantile reporting agencies, like Mr. Dun and Mr. Bradstreet’s, flourished, though they often provided misinformation as a coup de grâce to a struggling tradesman. Keeping book on good-for-nothing losers started with local reporters (young Abraham Lincoln was said to be one). And so ledgers recorded the sorry handiwork of self-made men. Some strivers who once raised themselves by their own bootstraps but were finally without a shoestring resorted to new federal bankruptcy legislation that was designed to relieve legal debt, not necessarily the moral kind. Others wrote begging letters to titans of the Gilded Age. (The Rockefellers, among others, kept their pleaders’ correspondence filed away for history.) The stories of the gaunt, ragged wraiths pictured in the garish chromolithographs of the day are brought to life here in mournful numbers. Taking us to the present, Sandage summons the tragic figure of Willy Loman, Arthur Miller’s dead salesman, who somehow prepared a place for those who lost the rat race in our culture. There’s “something of a market niche” for losers, the author finds, especially in pop music. Whether that niche contains many readers standing by for a straightforward study that hangs with left-behinds of the 1800s is an open question.
An earnest entry in an emerging academic discipline, but a dreary topic for recreational reading.