"As Scott A. Sandage points out in his recent book "Born Losers: A History of Failure in America" (Harvard University Press), the meaning of the word "failure" has evolved from the early 19th century, when it referred only to a business loss. Gradually, being a loser in life came to suggest a failure of character, too, a lack of up-by-the-bootstraps drive that the new loser chic debunks."
"Drawing on a prodigious amount of research into two centuries of diaries, self-help books, credit reports and legal cases, Sandage, a historian at Carnegie Mellon, paints a portrait gallery of American 'broken men, down-and-outers, no-accounts, third-raters, small fries, small potatoes, ... ne'er-do-wells [and] nobodies.'"
"Scott Sandage has written a splendid book.... 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'."
"[H]ow exactly should a hyper-competitive society deal with its losers? It is all very well to note that drunkards and slackers get what they deserve. But what about the honest toilers? One way to deal with the problem is to offer people as many second chances as possible. In his intriguing new book Born Losers: A History of Failure in America (Harvard), Scott Sandage argues that the mid-19th century saw a redefinition of failure-from something that described a lousy business to something that defined a whole life."
"There's actually a detectable writing 'style' here, and a refreshing smart-ass attitude crackling under the book's scholarly veneer -- a welcome change from the flat expository style of most self-consciously "academic" scribes. Nevertheless, it is the painstaking research that ultimately drives the book: bringing to light the plodders, the mediocre hucksters, and the luckless speculators that popular history has overlooked."
"Sandage, in Born Losers, quotes David Riesman, the sociologist, to the effect that by the middle of the 20th century, Americans had become unable to face "the possibility of defeat in one's personal life or one's work without being morally destroyed." The idea of the self-made man should have been liberating.... But this hopeful belief, while defining the future as gloriously open-ended, laid a heavy burden on those who did not succeed."
"When did we begin thinking of persons as losers and failures, conflating financial outcomes with personal character? What is identity and why has it been so tied to personal assets? Who fits, who doesn't, who decides? These are some of the questions Sandage explores in his meticulous examination of the other side of the American "success" story."
Now comes the real-life, nonfiction Willy Loman story. In 'Born Losers: A History of Failure in America,' Scott Sandage pays attention to the way our system creates losers, disdains them and attributes their failure to moral weakness
. Sandage really gets going in his epilogue, an eloquent essay that describes how the stigma of failure, the unforgiving ideologies of shame and blame, extend into the present time.
"In Scott Sandage's provocative new study, Born Losers: A History of Failure in America, 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.... [F]or a historian making his book debut, Dr. Sandage has mined a dark, rich vein, and, as in his deeply felt epilogue, he can write with great compassion."
"Scott A. Sandage's splendid history of the misfits of capitalism explores how 19th century America dealt with its own culture of irrational exuberance by locating the reasons for failure in the man, as Ralph Waldo Emerson asserted, rather than in the wild careening of a winner-take-all, laissez-faire economy."
There is a category of books that is emerging or, at least of which I am becoming conscious, that focuses on virgin territories and that by the sheer novelty of their approach and subject make their unlikely way into the . . . I'm thinking of Malcolm Gladwell's books and Louis Menand, Thomas Frank, even Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit book. Born Losers is such a book.
"By examining the lives and careers of a number of businessmen who failed during the 19th century, [Scott Sandage] portrays what we reflexively think of as the dark 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. He explores what he rather nicely calls "the hidden history of pessimism in a culture of optimism" by recording the "voices and experiences of men who failed (and of their wives and families)" as expressed in their "private letters, diaries, business records, bankruptcy cases, suicide notes, political mail, credit agency reports, charity requests and memoirs." In so doing he examines the ways in which our attitudes toward failure and our ways of measuring it have changed; if at moments Sandage lapses into the clotted patois of contemporary academia (he teaches history at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh), for the most part Born Losers is readable, interesting and thoroughly researched."
"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.)
"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 (and very quotable), though I would have welcomed a bit more context and exposition. 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. 'Failure is not the dark side of the American Dream;' he concludes, 'it is the foundation of it.'"
The Atlantic Monthly (an Editor's Choice book):
"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. He's looked at this era of robust, full-throated capitalism from the perspective of the economic losers, who made up the great majority of Americans in business.... Sandage demonstrates how an emerging capitalist economy came to dominate nearly every aspect of daily life, thereby transforming cultural values.... He's written a broad and original work."
"Even nobodies leave a paper trail, and 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. . . . [Sandage's] knack for colorful and clear prose -- and his love of period slang -- enlivens what might otherwise be a drab narrative."
"Scott Sandage, a history professor at Carnegie Mellon University, has centered his book in an extensive documentation of how individual Americans failed in business through the 19th century, and what such failure meant to them, in an era when success went from being an individual affair to a national and social ethic.... His book, restless, stuffed with citations (and overstuffed), and sometimes stretching a point, a connection, or a bit of wordplay, suffers from exuberance but profits far more by it. It is irrepressible and deeply serious, asking an old question in fresh form: whether our doctrine of equal opportunity and success to the best condemns everyone else to an unending sense of failure."
"Scott A. Sandage's new book, Born Losers: A History of Failure in America (Harvard, $35), is a story of debtors, bankruptcy laws, credit agencies, and broken men. It details how 19th-century attitudes toward financial ruin continue to inform our ideas about loserdom today. So pay attention and you might learn something."
"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."
"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."
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.