Book Review: 'Self-Help Messiah' by Steven Watts Dale Carnegie advocated a positive attitude and kept a file titled 'Damned Fool Things I Have Done.' Email Print Save¡ý More. . . . Comments Facebook Twitter Google+ LinkedIn smaller Larger By Philip Delves Broughton Nov. 1, 2013 3:22 p.m. ET Dale Carnegie came to prominence when America was psychologically adrift. The Great Depression had ruined millions. Flinty certainties about hard work and thrift had been upended by an era of speculation and the random cruelty of economic ruin. This was no longer the America of Benjamin Franklin and Poor Richard, where what mattered was your sinew and strength of character. A new kind of society was evolving. Carnegie, a man with the yappy vigor of a Jack Russell Terrier, had been preparing for this moment all his life. He had hoisted himself out of poverty in rural Missouri, trained as an actor in New York, failed as a novelist and established himself as a popular instructor of public speaking. His was a 19th-century, Horatio Alger tale of hard-won success. With the publication of "How to Win Friends and Influence People" (1936), Carnegie explained how to succeed in the 20th century. Self-Help Messiah By Steven Watts Other Press, 582 pages, $29.95 Enlarge Image Dale Carnegie at his home in Forest Hills, N.Y,, in 1949. Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images The secret was no longer Puritan diligence and moral rectitude. It was the force of your personality. If you could make yourself liked, people would do whatever you asked. They would buy from you and work for you. You didn't need to be the smartest or hardest-working person to succeed in this America. But to triumph in a new world of large organizations and corporations you did need vital talents for friendship and persuasion. John D. Rockefeller, one of the many business titans Carnegie cited, had said that "the ability to deal with people is as purchasable a commodity as sugar or coffee. . . . And I will pay more for that ability than for any other under the sun." Carnegie observed that Charles Schwab, the top manager at U.S. Steel, made a million dollars a year not for his knowledge of steel making, but for his "personality, his charm, his ability to make people like him." "How to Win Friends and Influence People," which is studded with such anecdotes, was an instant success, selling a million copies within two years. It has since become one of the best-selling books ever. Even Carnegie was astounded. "I knew people craved friendship, but I honestly did not realize how much they craved it," he said. In "Self-Help Messiah: Dale Carnegie and Success in Modern America," Steven Watts argues that Carnegie brought together threads from psychology, business and American folk tradition to create a new kind of national religion built on positive vibes and self-help. At the commemoration service in Yankee Stadium a couple of weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he observes, the master of ceremonies was not a politician or a cleric but Oprah Winfrey. "In this time of national tragedy, instead of a political or religious leader striding forward to seize the moment, it was America's leading representative of the modern self-help culture who salved the nation's wounds and affirmed its highest aspirations. Such a thing would have seemed preposterous in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor in 1941, or even after the assassinations of John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s. But it seemed perfectly appropriate at the dawn of the twenty-first century." Dale Carnegie, he says, played an important role in this change. By embedding Carnegie into such broad historical shifts, Mr. Watts tells a story as jaunty as his protagonist. At the center of the book is the gratifyingly imperfect figure of Carnegie. Hard as he tried, Carnegie could never entirely live up to his own high standards. Though charming, energetic and solicitous, he was far from the kind of hail-fellow bore his writing suggests. His first marriage ended in divorce. His teaching business nearly collapsed from poor management. He conducted a long affair with a married woman and had a daughter with her, or at least believed the girl was his in the absence of DNA tests. He finally married for the second time, and very happily, in 1944. But as he joked to Time magazine, after writing the definitive book on winning friends "it took me eight years to influence a woman to marry me." When "How to Win Friends" came out, the response was as overwhelming as it was satisfying. "When strangers meet me and begin to get acquainted, they find that I am just like their next door neighbor, that I am not someone with a dynamic personality," he said. "Then they feel let down. I sense that feeling and then I am embarrassed." Not all of the advice contained in the book has endured. In a section for women readers, on "the art of handling men," he advised that men didn't want to have lunch with the kind of woman who would talk about business but rather with "the non-collegiate typist [who], when invited to luncheon, fixes an incandescent gaze on her escort, and says yearningly, 'Now tell me some more about yourself.' " Long before Sheryl Sandberg, such advice fell out of fashion. Carnegie kept a file on his own failings called "Damned Fool Things I Have Done." These tended not to be moral or spiritual failings but failures in his relationships, such as forgetting names, making someone feel awkward or losing his temper. "With Carnegie," writes Mr. Watts, "the stress shifted from shaping one's inner moral character to shaping the impressions that one made upon other people¡ªwhat he described in his diary as 'the biggest problem I shall ever face: the management of Dale Carnegie.' " But of course the more popular he became, the more he was resented and belittled by those who considered lessons in manners and self-improvement beneath them. The New York Times review of "How to Win Friends" said the book was aimed at the "wishful millions who have never been able to influence other people much, who would like to begin life all over again even though they are past 40, who long to be told how they can think of themselves, who live alone and hate it." The author Sinclair Lewis said that "the magic expression 'million dollars' is used as in more old-fashioned, less air-conditioned volumes of inspiration where the authors used such words as Austerity, Nobility, Faith, and Honor." Carnegie's great crime, in the eyes of his detractors, was to equate fineness of character with the ability to make money. Pleasing others, almost regardless of what that might entail, was the secret to great wealth. Having grown up so poor, he seemed to have little time for arguments about the iniquity of financial success. But the issue does provide Mr. Watts with the opportunity for an interesting historical digression on the subject. Mr. Watts is judicious about presenting various perspectives on Carnegie and his role in the evolution of the modern therapy culture. But what shines through is Carnegie's zest for improving the lives of those who struggled, whether socially, at work or in the home. The book is full of testimony from employees and students to his effectiveness. His last major book, "How to Stop Worrying and Start Living" (1948) addressed the fact that so many Americans "have collapsed under the crushing burden of accumulated yesterdays and fearful tomorrows." His prescriptions are all but indistinguishable from those of the modern peddlers of "mindfulness." Live for the moment. Be accepting and forgiving of yourself and others. Stop chasing your desires and appreciate what you have. Whatever the snobs thought, Carnegie's millions of fans knew then and now that he was on the side of the angels. ¡ªMr. Delves Broughton's latest book is "The Art of the Sale: Learning From the Masters About the Business of Life." Email Print Save¡ý More. . . . Comments Order Reprints Facebook Twitter Google+ LinkedIn

— Dale Carnegie, persuading vs. substance  

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