Watts (Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream, 2008, etc.) recounts the life and times of motivational guru Dale Carnegie (1888–1955).
The author goes beyond simple biography to explore the sea-change in American thought heralded by the author of How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936), examining the social, technological and economic upheaval of the early 20th century that shifted emphasis from the idea of “character” to “personality,” a more individual-centered focus made possible by unprecedented opportunities for prosperity. Carnegie—born Carnagey—the shrewd author may have sought to align himself in the public mind with successful industrialist Andrew, no relation—grew up in poverty on a farm in Missouri, baffled by the failure of his parents’ devotion to Protestant and Victorian ideals of hard work, self-denial and moral rectitude to reap the rewards of material success. Carnegie undertook a number of professions—successfully, in the case of selling meat products, less so in the fields of journalism, acting and fiction writing—before finding great success as a public speaker preaching the gospel of personal reinvention, positive thinking and the importance of cultivating relationship skills. His classic manual on the subject was an instant, massive hit, a revolutionary distillation of Carnegie’s principals that continues to sell in significant numbers today and essentially inaugurated the still thriving genre of self-help. Watts portrays Carnegie not as a wildly original thinker or electrifying guru figure but rather as an easygoing, avuncular, self-deprecating (he long maintained a file entitled “Damned Fool Things I Have Done”) man, a brilliant synthesizer of ideas from psychology, philosophy, advertising and his own experience. He was an intuitive savant who grasped the nature of his changing times and crafted a message that resonated with a mass culture struggling to adapt.
A fascinating portrait of the father of self-help and incisive analysis of the mercurial era that produced him.