Self-Help Messiah

In this first full-length biography of pioneering self-help guru Dale Carnegie, Steven Watts makes the compelling argument that Carnegie's story is the story of America.

Self-Help Messiah, by Steven Watts, Other Press, 592 pp.

Growing up in rural Missouri, Dale Carnegey absorbed many lessons from his pious mother and father, but they were not the lessons his parents intended. Despite their unrelenting labor and upstanding morals, the family lived in bleak poverty. In 1913, several years after Dale had left home, his father sold off a chunk of his farmland at a considerable profit. "Now you see how money is made," Dale wrote his parents upon hearing the news. "It is not by hard work."

Carnegey, scarred by the deprivation of his childhood and obsessed with the question of how to make it in America, would go on to write one of the bestselling nonfiction books of all time, "How to Win Friends and Influence People" – changing his name to the now familiar Carnegie along the way. Steven Watts, history professor at the University of Missouri, has written the first full-length biography of Carnegie, Self-Help Messiah, and he makes the compelling argument that "the story of Dale Carnegie is, in essence, the story of America itself in a dynamic era of change."

That change was indeed rapid and far-reaching. Carnegie was born in 1888, and through his early life the nation experienced, in Watts's words, "not only massive industrialization, mass immigration, and the closing of the frontier but the rapid growth of a modern consumer economy." With economic and demographic transformation came an attendant shift in cultural values, as strict Victorian moral codes lost ground and "character" came to be seen as less important than "personality."

Carnegie, who discovered a talent for rhetoric in college, had brief stints as a salesman and an actor before finding his niche teaching a popular public speaking course in New York. Beginning the venture as a speculative sideline when his other prospects had come up empty, Carnegie discovered enormous demand for a class in how to overcome a common anxiety, particularly among ambitious businessmen. The Dale Carnegie Course in Effective Speaking spread to other cities (and, eventually, countries); it evolved beyond speechmaking to address the larger question of how to get ahead in the new bureaucratic corporate economy. Carnegie and the instructors he trained stressed positive thinking, pop psychology, and salesmanship, teaching that the key to success lay in knowing how to "handle" people properly.
 
When Carnegie adapted the course's principles to a book in 1936, Watts observes, he had the good fortune to be presenting "the right ideas at the right time." Though panned by critics, who saw its worldview as cynical and manipulative, "How to Win Friends and Influence People" was an immediate sensation, grabbed up by a demoralized population struggling to recover from the Depression; to date it has sold more than 30 million copies. In chapters like "Fundamental Techniques in Handling People," "Six Ways to Make People Like You," and "Making People Glad to Do What You Want," Carnegie offered concrete advice in brisk, folksy, and inspirational prose. "Everybody in the world is seeking happiness," Carnegie wrote. "And there is one sure way to find it. That is by controlling your thoughts." Watts, who has written biographies of Hugh Hefner, Walt Disney, and Henry Ford, credits Carnegie with being an early and effective popularizer of therapeutic discourse, calling his significant, albeit ambivalent, legacy "the establishment of a robust self-help movement that has shaped modern American values in fundamental ways."
 
Like the author's previous biographies, "Self-Help Messiah" is excessively long, in no small part because it is repetitive and overly detailed (those with a need to know that Carnegie's system for storing interesting articles involved "using large yellow manila envelopes as files and filling them with newspaper clippings, magazine extracts, and personal notes" might disagree). It also occasionally veers into hyperbole, as when Watts ventures that "much as Franklin Roosevelt saved capitalism during the Great Depression, Dale Carnegie saved the culture of individualism that accompanied it."
 
The book's greatest strength lies in its exploration of broader themes; Watts captures a momentous period of change in America and makes a forceful case for Carnegie's significance in it. Harder to capture is Carnegie himself, who remains, despite efforts to untangle his inner life, somewhat inscrutable here. Watts trustingly cites descriptions by Carnegie's contemporaries of the celebrity author as genuine, encouraging, and avuncular. Since Carnegie literally wrote the book on handling people, however, one wonders how accurately those impressions capture his true nature. But if "Self-Help Messiah" ends with its subject still a remote figure, that's a problem unlikely to burden Watts's next biography. His footnotes reveal that he's at work on a book about one of Carnegie's spiritual descendants – Oprah Winfrey – someone Americans already feel they know quite well.

Barbara Spindel has covered books for Time Out New York, Newsweek.com, Details, and Spin. She holds a PhD in American Studies.

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