Self-Help Messiah: Dale Carnegie and Success in Modern America

Steven Watts, Author
Steven Watts. Other Press, $29.95 (576p) ISBN 978-1-59051-502-0
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The man whose bestselling How to Win Friends and Influence People defined 20th-century American normalcy was a deeply subversive figure, according to this penetrating biography. Historian Watts (The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century) follows Carnegie as he abandons his family’s rural poverty and rock-ribbed Protestantism to become a salesman, actor, theater impresario, Lost Generation novelist, and educator who developed his public-speaking courses into a prescription for psychological renovation and a template for later self-help therapies. Along the way, the author argues, Carnegie embodied and promoted a revolutionary shift from a Victorian code of stern morality, hard work, and self-denial to a modern ethos that locates success in a pleasing personality, a canny stroking of other people’s egos, and the pursuit of self-actualization—with implications both liberating and sinister. (A new biography of mass murderer Charles Manson notes his use of manipulative ploys gleaned from a Dale Carnegie course.) Watts situates Carnegie’s story in a rich account of the dawning age of consumerism, mass entertainment, and a new business culture centered on salesmanship and smoothly meshing corporate bureaucracy, rather than rugged individualism. Watts’s lucid prose and shrewd analysis gives us an absorbing portrait of Carnegie and the America he both reflected and shaped. Photos. (Nov.)
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