- - Friday, February 28, 2014

SELF-HELP MESSIAH: DALE CARNEGIE AND SUCCESS IN MODERN AMERICABy Steven Watts
Other Press $29.95, 576 pages

Once in an exihibit catalog of Frank Lloyd Wright’s interior designs I read that he was, “the preeminent creator of the American Progressive movement’s reform efforts to create a cultural standard of design.”

That description stuck in my mind when I tried to sit in one of the exhibit items. It was a prototype office desk Wright had designed in the late 1920s for a giant Chicago insurance company. The desk was all steel, and boasted a spring-levered platform for a typewriter that could be retracted into the desk’s interior at the end of the day. The trouble was that neither I nor my far smaller wife could actually sit at the desk since the chair was bolted to the frame in such a way that only a very tiny person could fit. Whether anyone could work in such confinement for eight hours was unthinkable; clearly Wright had not thought about it.

Anyone who has ever crept through Wright’s claustrophobic, and now moldy Munchkin-chalet at Fallingwater in nearby Pennsylvania or visited any of Wright’s Usonian houses that dot the Midwest, knows that he was arrogantly unconcerned about whether real human beings ever tried to work or live in the spaces he created.

Wright’s designs were all about form and little about function. In that, he was indeed the leading design arbiter of the culture of the Progressive movement which remains the driving political and cultural force in America today. Among the founding tenets of Progressivism is a disdain for the “masses,” those of us whose innate ignorance, self-absorption and prejudices require an enlightened elite of “scientific” experts to dragoon us into perfecting our society, whether we want to or not. As with Wright’s designs, modern Progressives believe appearance trumps utility and that one size-fits-all is all we deserve.

This preamble explains the importance of this biography of Dale Carnegie, the founding father of all the self-enhancement cable-television gurus who have followed. It should be required reading for anyone concerned by the ongoing drift from what had been a republic of individual citizens downward into a class-defined social-nationalist state that would have appalled Kafka and Orwell. It is hard to exaggerate Dale Carnegie’s impact on American character. The one book he is best known for, “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” has over the last 75 years sold more than 30 million copies worldwide and may rank only behind the Bible and Dr. Benjamin Spock’s “Practical Guide to Baby and Child Care” for its place on American bookshelves, the difference being, more people have actually read through “How to Win Friends” than have slogged through either of the other two life guides.

The secret to Carnegie’s astonishing impact on the American psyche is that he was a resolute anti-Progressive. To be sure, he espoused many of the public and social reforms that were part of the Progressive mantra, but his primary mission was to liberate Americans from the strictures of the mass sociology preached by the Intelligent Left with its emphasis on leveling us all into one cohort that would be obedient to mass advertising, mass education and mass governmental remedies. While the Progressive movement — born in the late 1880s, flowering in the New Deal — is now institutionalized in both government and academia, yet the flame Carnegie nurtured still flickers to give us hope.

What Carnegie recognized and tapped into is that miraculous spark of yearning ambition that burns inside each individual for something better than the life he or she was born into. Unlike his faux imitators — one thinks of Oprah and Dr. Oz, among others — he prized ambition over self-gratification. That scores of millions of us have read his books and taken his courses, lies in the secret he unlocks for them: To advance your inner potential you must first sell yourself to others who can help you advance. To do that, you have to appeal to their own inner ambitions and desires. Win friends and then influence them.

This is more than a straight-line biography, although it is a good one. Author Steven Watts is a University of Missouri history professor whose other biographies have illuminated other cultural avatars such as Henry Ford, Walt Disney and Hugh Hefner. He does a masterful job of weaving in Carnegie’s impact on the lives of individuals being tossed by the waves of industrialization, urbanization and mass media that dominated the last century and this.

All the more remarkable is that Carnegie was a creature of the old America — the rural, hard-scrabble Middle West of the 19th century. Born Dale Carnegey in 1888 to a regularly failing farm family, all he really had to start out with was a burning ambition and, as he said, “a gift of gab.”

After fitful attempts to make it as a travelling salesman for a canned meat company, young Dale made a heroic leap of faith by taking some insufficient savings and enrolling in the prestigious American Academy of the Dramatic Arts in New York. Taking the skills there he tried, and failed, to prosper as a theater actor. After a series of other promotional schemes sank, he ended up giving inspirational talks at the numerous YMCAs there. From those talks it was a short reach to begin publishing self-help and inspirational guides. As he refined those, the Dale Carnegie (he had long since changed his surname) courses and “How to Win Friends” were born.

The book and the courses have, of course, spawned an entire industry of cable-television and shopping mall seminars of sometimes questionable provenance. Yet Carnegie’s intuition that the spark of individual ambition burns in all of us persists, and this book is, in its own way, an inspiration, too.

James Srodes’ latest book is “On Dupont Circle: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the Progressives Who Shaped Our World” (Counterpoint).