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Born Losers: A History of Failure in America Paperback – May 30, 2006

ISBN-13: 978-0674021075 ISBN-10: 067402107X

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

It's a most familiar refrain of American life: work hard and prosper. That the dream of triumphant prosperity so consistently and perplexingly eludes so many, despite heroic effort and toil, is, alas, also familiar. Hardly surprising, argues Carnegie Mellon historian Sandage: it turns out that Americans are much less Andrew Carnegie and more Willy Loman. Why? In the early days of the republic, Protestant predestination and the uniquely democratic promise of reward based on a meritocracy of effort and talent unleashed the dynamic but often unfocused energies of untold numbers of self-styled frontier entrepreneurs. By the 19th century, the myth of the self-made man had become a test of identity and self-worth. A few succeeded beyond their wildest expectations but, says Sandage, most Americans faced unexpected and heartbreaking ruin. Sandage has done an admirable job of culling diaries and letters to tell their stories. Most compelling are the "begging letters" written by women to outstanding capitalists on behalf of their ruined husbands. Regrettably, these individual snapshots fail to cohere into a fully comprehensive portrait of the personal and social psychology of failure. That failure diminished a man is hardly revelatory, nor does it constitute the level of specific historical analysis one expects. 30 b&w photos; 30 b&w illus.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


Americans do not like to talk about failure. It is the underside of an American dream that stresses winning over losing, succeeding over succumbing. But not everyone makes it and the story of failure has a history that Scott Sandage probes with subtlety and grace in this impressive work of cultural history. Born Losers is deeply researched, carefully argued, and well written. His examination of commercial failure and the problems of identity goes a long way toward reconfiguring our understanding of the American dream. (Louis P. Masur, author of 1831: Year of Eclipse)

Born Losers is a beautiful piece of writing. Scott Sandage is history's Dickens; his bleak house, the late nineteenth century world of almost anonymous American men who failed. With wit and sympathy, Sandage illuminates the grey world of credit evaluation, a little studied smothering arm of capitalism. This is history as it should be, a work of art exploring the social cost of our past. (William S. McFeely, author of Grant: a Biography)

Here is a feast of historical insight, personal narrative, and literary panache. With his focus on the making of economic failure, Sandage enables us to see and understand 19th century America in an entirely new, provocatively sober way... A fascinating book. (Michael Kazin, author of The Populist Persuasion: An American History)

I found Born Losers a confirmation of an old belief that in American history there is a crash in every generation sufficient to mark us with a kind of congenital fear of failure. This is a bright light on a buried strain in the evolution of the United States. (Arthur Miller)

In this book about the cultural ramifications of economic failure in nineteenth-century America, Sandage has taken on an important and underexamined subject and scrutinized it in inventive ways, using unexpected and largely unmined sources. (Benjamin Schwarz The Atlantic 2005-01-01)

Born Losers, admirably concise and formidably researched, is the history of America's reverse Horatio Algers. Scott A. Sandage, an associate professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University, logged a decade in the library to produce what amounts to an authoritative chronicle of the risks of lending and borrowing in 19th century America (although the book ranges well into the 20th). (James Grant Wall Street Journal 2005-01-21)

By examining the lives and careers of a number of businessmen who failed during the 19th century, [Sandage] portrays what we reflexively think of as the darker side of the American dream but what is, in reality, an only slightly exaggerated mirror of the reality with which ordinary people--i.e., thee and me--are fated to contend...For the most part Born Losers is readable, interesting and thoroughly researched...We understand the human side of failure far more keenly than we did a couple of centuries ago, but we still fear it and still believe--against all the evidence--that somehow we can and will escape it. (Jonathan Yardley Washington Post 2005-01-30)

In Scott Sandage's provocative new study, Born Losers, the Carnegie Mellon University professor notes that not long ago, 'loser' meant only that a person had lost money or a house. It described an event; it didn't declare a person completely worthless. His study examines how we came to make that change, how we internalized it and enshrined it in our culture...Sandage has mined a dark, rich vein, and, as in his deeply felt epilogue, he can write with great compassion. (Jerome Weeks Dallas Morning News 2005-03-14)

The book presents a convincing argument and is winningly alive to literary parallels--success may be the grand theme of American history, but failures, from Bartleby through Gatsby to Willy Loman, dominate its literature. (Robert Hanks Daily Telegraph 2005-03-19)

[A] densely packed history of capitalism's dark side...Sandage's history of another America that paved the way for this one is instructive and fascinating. (Bob Hoover Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2005-02-06)

This is a fascinating book, both as history and moral history. The decade or so Sandage spent on it has paid off in its copious scholarship and polished writing. His epigrammatic style is thought provoking...The mostly 19th century history is revelatory, but his epilogue bringing his topic into the present, through the Great Depression, Willy Loman and Charlie Brown, to Bob Dylan, is positively scintillating. (William S. Kowinski Books in Heat 2005-02-11)

Born Losers rifles through diaries and financial records, piecing together an engaging tale of 19th-century America as seen from the bottom of the barrel. Peeking into long-forgotten bankruptcy cases, the author provides poignant glimpses of men ensnared in Bleak House-style webs of misery. Society had little sympathy for these ruined creatures, often honest men ambushed by hard times. The newly popular notion that anyone could prosper in America led people to blame those who didn't. (Joy Press Village Voice 2004-12-24)

Words like 'loser' and 'failure' have been in our vocabulary since at least the 16th century, but only recently have they come to describe a person's moral condition. How this happened and what constitutes failure as we understand it today are the subject of Scott A. Sandage's new book...Through fascinating testimonies from diaries, credit reports and court records, Sandage gives the 'loser' a significant--if not defining--role in the development of the institutions and values that emerged from the 19th century and that continue to inform our experience today...Making illuminating use of Weber, Emerson, Tocqueville and Thoreau, among others, Sandage identifies the beliefs that led to America's peculiar--if not intemperate--embrace of business as a national religion and the transference of old morals onto a new map. Locating vice in the individual to explain business failures was simply a reconfiguration of the doctrine of predestination, which held that some are saved and others condemned. Likewise in the market there were born winners and born losers; the central challenge of business was knowing one from the other...The glorification of personal accountability is a curious, if not damaging, tradition, and Sandage does a marvelous job of tracing its evolution. (Maria Fish San Francisco Chronicle 2005-03-06)

Scott Sandage has written a splendid book...A new American generation pushes its economic faith about the world. Everyone ought to race for success and let the devil take the hindmost (as the original Puritans quite literally expected him to). Sandage has done a marvellous job exploring the dark side of this peculiar American gospel: the blithe judgment that failure reflects a personal defect, that want is a species of sin, and the insistence that the sources of wealth and poverty lie entirely 'in the man.' (James Morone London Review of Books 2005-05-19)

In his book, Sandage explains how the 19th century changed people's ideas about winning and losing. (Pat Burson Newsday 2005-06-06)

Sandage follows a paper trail that reveals the hidden history of pessimism in a culture of optimism. Besides documents frequently examined by historians--diaries and correspondence, for example--he explores genres such as business manuals, credit reports and even suicide notes...Ultimately, Sandage tells the story of losers to expose the history of the 'culture of personality' in capitalist America. 'We can learn a great deal about our culture and about ourselves from the stories of Americans who failed,' he insists. And that history, he writes, shows that we have 'embraced business as the dominant model for our outer and inner lives.' (Alex Lichtenstein Houston Chronicle 2005-05-13)

Drawing on a prodigious amount of research into two centuries of diaries, self-help books, credit reports and legal cases, Sandage paints a portrait gallery of American 'broken men, down-and-outers, no-accounts, third-raters, small fries, small potatoes,'er-do-wells (and) nobodies.' (Andrew Stark Times Literary Supplement 2005-05-27)

Sandage's book is a rich and fascinating exposition of how failure, once deemed an accident of fortune, has been turned into an ontological category, an explanation of fate based on an essence of the individual, an intangible identity bequeathed at birth. It is a harsh and cruel judgment, usually disguised as condescension or pity. For children and teenagers, it is a taunt--Loser!--that consigns the designee to hell...This is the sort of deeply critical and deeply caring book that is too seldom seen in cultural studies...You cannot come away from this elegant book without a heightened awareness of the devastating costs of the go-ahead mandate for the downsized corporate executive, the bank teller denied a promotion year after year, the college graduate struggling to spring loose of internships to land a real job. (Christine Stansell New Republic 2005-08-08)

[O]ne would be the loser for taking a pass on this book, for Scott Sandage is a historian of exceptional gifts, and those gift--a rich historical imagination, and keen archival eye and a carefully crafted prose style—make Born Losers a richly rewarding read...Born Losers belongs to that marvelously mixed genre of retrospective ethnography and philosophical meditation that the anthropologist Clifford Geertz has called "the social history of the moral imagination." (Jean-Christophe Agnew Business History Review)

Born Losers is an elegantly written, carefully crafted account of how Americans have coped with failure over the past 200 years...The entire book is a pleasure for anyone to read. (Allan Winkler Times Higher Education Supplement 2006-06-16)

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...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")...By concluding that failure "is not the dark side of the American Dream [but rather] the foundation of it," Sandage challenges historians to reexamine 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. (Jocelyn Wills Journal of Social History 2006-12-22)

Sandage offers a poignant cultural account of 19th-century economic hardships and the pitiable archetype they gave birth to: the dismal "plodder," the man who was a "failure." He was the fellow who couldn't get ahead, who couldn't break through and probably never would. The fatal flaw that supposedly distinguished these born nonentities was their lack, it was thought, of a certain crucial vitality. In an age that equated vigor with virtue, this weakness was tantamount to immorality. To make the loser feel even worse about himself, his glorious antithesis--the striver, the up-and-comer--was being defined at the same time. Writers promoting the secrets of success in the rough game of industrial capitalism rendered a verdict on economic failure that still endures: it's never an accident. The success people have is determined by who they are--or rather, by who they aren't--and not by circumstances. This brutish superstition persists, despite our increasingly scientific perspective on economic and financial developments. When experts wielding charts and graphs refer to "bottoms" and spells of "negative growth," the jobless take scant consolation, I have a hunch. A nation that thinks of material well-being as the prize in a competition or a race instills in its citizens a moral horror of ever giving up, even if the contest can have few winners and the course is all uphill. (Walter Kirn New York Times Magazine 2009-05-10)

A remarkable book.
(Leon Wieseltier New Republic 2013-08-19)

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (May 30, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 067402107X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674021075
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #162,047 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

You can see if you'll like the book by reading the intro online.
It is obvious by the number of sources used and documented that Sandage has put a great deal of research into the book.
Valorie T.
Despite the uniqueness of the argument, I left the work a bit disappointed.
J. Smallridge

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Valorie T. on December 28, 2009
Format: Paperback
In Born Losers: A History of Failure in America, author Scott A. Sandage points out that the nineteenth century, despite being an age of capitalism, industrialization, and promise, was also an age of great economic hardship and loss for men and women who together created a culture of failure that personally and morally defined them. Society and the government held people individually accountable for failure despite circumstance, and relief was hard to come by because the government did not have the systems in place to manage it. When failure occurred, it was "a reason, in the man." The prevailing idea that "no one fails who ought not fail" identified men to such a point that failure was a matter of personal worth, morality, and virtue. That only a man himself could be blamed for failure no matter the cause created a multitude of dynamics: drive vs. risk, innovation vs. safety, and failure vs. the possibility of any future success. Once failure was stuck to you and became a part of your identity, it was a hard label to shake. Especially with the birth of Tappan's very first credit report agency that sent out personal information to aid in assessing the possible risk and success of others.

Sandage's greatest strength lies in his usage of primary source documents and the many stories and examples they provide his book. They, large in number, not only give creditability to the story, but they raise interest so that the book is enjoyable to read. It is an illuminating and fun look at something that is normally depressing in nature--failure and stigma placed on personal identity. It is obvious by the number of sources used and documented that Sandage has put a great deal of research into the book.
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28 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Diverse on July 30, 2006
Format: Paperback
this book is full of facts, yet easy to read.

The introduction is amazing. (You can see if you'll

like the book by reading the intro online.)

The book gracefully builds from the intro,

giving more information and examples.

The author is a historian, and uses footnotes

and includes a detailed bibliography.

If you want to learn a lot about social attitudes

towards business success/failure around 100 years ago,

and also understand the social and business forces

that helped the successful and hindered the 'failures',

you'll want to read this book.

I chose this book because i want to learn why

some people succeed and some people fail, even though

both try and are intelligent.

The self-help books state 'hard work = success'.

Yet you and I know that's not always true.

Success doesn't result solely from effort.

And Failure doesn't always occur because a person was lazy.

There are a lot of uncontrollable variables in any persons success or failure.

If effort and preparation were all that are necessary, then why is Bill Gates (a college dropout), Larry Ellison (Oracle Corp) (a college dropout), Russell Simmons (Hip-hop record producer, college dropout) all much wealthier than 99% of the Ivy league MBA's who graduated in the last 20 years?

The author is able to present many examples, and give explanations to support his theories.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By ignacio f. on September 7, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This deals with the usually offstage history of failure and failures, what happens to them, what they have in common -- and how here in America we define ourselves as successful or failed. That is, we define our lives in business terms.

But this is a colorful, even rollicking at times book, anything but programmatic or dry. One chapter, for example, deals with the literary genre of begging letters sent to John D. Rockefeller. I was stimulated and entertained. This may be a book I'll want to reread at some point.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By PHIL on June 26, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book spends a great deal of time on the nascent business of credit reporting in the 1800s. This was a dawn of the information age, an industry that made its money doing nothing but collecting, indexing, and reporting data. Many passages of these reports are included here, some of which were very literature-like, and quite far from today's condensed FICO-type numbers. There was much room for human error and high-handedness. Plenty of people subjected to having their identities described in accounts outside their control (but for court actions, some successful, some not), thus affecting their creditworthiness, as generated by strangers temporarily poking around town, must have felt a kind of reputational nervousness not unlike common to our times. This book also explores historical narratives of success and failure in the USA, along with some who attempted to reject that paradigm (with Henry David Thoreau springing immediately to mind).
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Nat Irvin II on May 17, 2014
Format: Hardcover
If you've ever wondered just when did the American language of business, "I feel like a failure," become attached to the language of the soul," then Scott Sandage has written the book for you. Sandage is a brilliant historian, lyricist and writes with such eloquence, poetry and humor to portray the lives and the stories of the people who lived through our national transition where gradually the individual fear of losing one's soul gives way to ambition and a fear of losing in business; hence the emergence of a new American identity, where failure in business becomes synonymous with one's identity and ones worth in life. You really don't know American history if you don't know how the language of business between 1800-1876 became synonymous with America itself. I think this book should be a must read for MBA and Seminary students alike. I have read "Born Losers" twice, and am now trying to determine how I might use it in the classroom.
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