One of Dale Carnegie’s earliest memories was the smell of burning hog flesh.

Year after year as the 19th century came to a close, his parents lost the pigs of their small farm to cholera, and year after year they were forced to burn them — the crackling smell piercing his nostrils as a boy.

The future self-help guru watched, too, as the floodwaters of the 102 River bowled over the cornfields and the hayfields of their Missouri farm, leaving nothing but refuse in their wake.

Six out of seven years on the farm, the 102 overflowed and ruined their crops. Despite working 16-hour days, the family was drowning in debt. The seventh year they did well and fed the surplus crops to the animals, but they still earned less for the livestock than what they paid for them.

“No matter what we did, we lost money,” he later wrote. It may have technically been the Gilded Age, but the spoils of a booming economy barely touched his family’s corner of northwest Missouri, much less Dale’s parents.

Born Dale Carnagey on Nov. 24, 1888, he spent his childhood mucking the barn, chopping wood, and just barely scraping by on a struggling farm. The town’s first flushing toilet was the kind of thing that made news in Maryville, Missouri. He remembered going into town to try the newfangled toilet and then walking away immediately after the deafening sound of the flush embarrassed him.

Far from most major cities, Dale and his schoolmates played across hundreds of acres of pastureland and timberland. That same 102 River that caused his parents so much grief was also the location of some of the “happiest hours of my childhood,” Dale wrote in a letter to his daughter, which doubled as an autobiography, a few years before his death in 1955.

In the summer, he would spend his days swimming or catching fish with a willow pole and a baited worm in the river, before eating ripe fruit from the plump watermelon patches scattered across northwest Missouri. He recounted both the hardships and a beautiful American pastoral quality to his childhood.

“As a child, I knew where the robins and the turtledoves nested. I knew the color of their eggs. I knew their songs. . . . The bird songs I heard in our orchard seem in retrospect to have been lovelier than the music of Schumann Heink and Caruso,” he wrote.

But the hardships of life on the farm were many, and as a boy Dale hated all the chores that farming required: churning butter, milking cows, cleaning the henhouse, weeding, and chopping wood.

Shame, fear, and the kind of anxiety he would spend the rest of his adult life fighting against pervaded much of Carnagey’s early life. He feared his family would not have enough to eat. He worried that they would lose the farm. And for much of his youth, especially in school, he was an awkward boy, self-conscious and suffering from intense anxiety. (He would even later write an entire book on how to stop worrying.)

The books he would write were not born of a care-free philosopher but of a man desperate to survive, whose numerous brushes with failure and death would serve as fodder for a lifetime of motivation.

The moment that gave him his first break — and set him on the path that would win him fame and wealth — came when he was a student.

His parents decided to buy a new farm closer to Warrensburg, Missouri, in order to send him to a teaching college because the school had no tuition. Unable to afford the $1 per day room and board, Dale commuted to school on horseback. Wearing threadbare, patched clothes that no longer fit him, he cut a strange figure riding each day to class.

His school years were marked by what he described as an “inferiority complex.” While standing at the blackboard, he could hardly concentrate, shuddering at the thought of people making fun of his raggedy appearance.

Self-conscious of his poverty and lacking in confidence, he joined the speech team as a way of becoming more self-assured.

He would practice his speeches, including the Gettysburg Address, on those daily horse rides to college — talking to himself in snow, sleet, and sweaty summers — and soon he became the star speaker of the school, known for his charisma and his magnetic public speaking skills.

Shame, especially concerning his own poverty and appearance, had been perhaps the single defining emotion of Dale’s formative years. But he had finally found its antidote: charm.

Years later, he wrote: “True, clothes don’t make the man; but they do make 90% of all we see of the man.”

The book he would write became a kind of amulet guarding against shame —because if you get other people talking about themselves, they’ll be too distracted to notice your flaws (or what you’re wearing).

His largely self-taught skill at public speaking rescued him from unpopularity and from shame, and it was that skill that would earn him a living long before he became a bestselling author.

By 1911, he had moved to New York City in the hopes of working as an actor. Upon his arrival in Manhattan, the thing that shocked him most was just how much money everything cost. Even the cheapest hotels were three times as expensive as the best rooms back in Missouri, and coffee and toast for breakfast could quickly drain him of his meager savings.

Carnegie had only learned how bank accounts worked two years prior, at the age of twenty. The man who would become a business guru had been forced to write a letter to his parents, asking, “When I put my money in there how do I know I can ever get it out?”

He took up residence in a run-down apartment on West Fifty-Sixth Street. The room he rented was so infested with cockroaches that the insects would scatter every time he went to take a necktie off the wall.

Carnegie fought to find acting roles, all while hustling to make ends meet by working as a car salesman.

What would become the basis for his bestseller “How to Win Friends and Influence People” started as a public speaking course he gave at the 125th Street YMCA.

The struggling actor ended up there even as several schools and other institutions turned down his offer to teach. Carnegie’s main professional experience came from working as a traveling salesman selling soap, bacon, and lard in the Dakotas prior to his arrival in New York City.

Even the 125th Street YMCA was not convinced that anyone would be interested in his public speaking classes, so they refused to pay him a fee. Projecting little profit, they offered him 80 percent of the net receipts rather than any up-front payment. In the beginning, the YMCA was proved right: His first lecture in 1912 was certainly not a runaway success.

He started off lecturing as a college professor might on “oratory,” but within a few short minutes he ran out of material. To stall for time, he asked one of the only five or six attendees to tell the rest of the group about himself. And then he called on another man to do the same while he tried to figure out something to say next.

He never finished that initial lecture he had begun, and instead he began formulating his conviction about how much people enjoy talking about themselves.

“A lot of the methods I used were desperation methods,” he later wrote. Desperation drove Carnegie to work harder, to try everything when it came to teaching, to working, and to surviving. He revamped the class to focus on participation, steering students toward talking about any subject that they were passionate about, and he quickly discovered that two of his students’ favorite subjects were themselves and the things that made them angry.

The class focused on self-confidence, salesmanship, and communication. The next year, his enrollment tripled, and he soon expanded to teaching at a Brooklyn YMCA. Enthusiasm steadily built, attracting more attention from other nearby YMCAs.

Within a few years of that first lecture, he was earning between $30 and $40 a night (between $750 and $1,000 in today’s currency). By the end of 1914, Carnegie was teaching in New York, Philadelphia, and Delaware, pulling in $500 a month.

Students all over the Northeast flocked to his classes, eager to acquire Carnegie’s way with words.

With his steady income from public speaking courses, Carnegie decided to rent an office space. The location he selected — and whose auditorium he would later fill on multiple occasions — was Carnegie Hall.

There are myriad theories as to why “Carnagey” became “Carnegie” — ease of pronunciation, a dissociation from his origins, or a closer link with steel baron Andrew Carnegie — and there seems to be at least some truth in many of these hypotheses.

Perhaps above all, Dale was a skilled showman and self-promoter, someone who simply could not turn down the clout that the “Carnegie” name conferred.

The crux of those public speaking courses — self-confidence, developing personality, and an interest in others — would become the basis for his 1936 bestseller, “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”

The smell of manure and damp hay, the sound of sniggering schoolmates — they may have been distant memories by the time Carnegie started work on his book more than twenty years after that first YMCA course. But the lessons he learned from those early failures would become the cornerstone of a philosophy that reached tens of millions of people, earning him a moniker: “the father of the self-help movement.”

Excerpted from Americanon by Jess McHugh, published by Dutton, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021

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