In what is surely unintended irony, Steven Watts’s biography of Dale Carnegie is being published by Other Press. Where was Self & Company when the book proposal was making the rounds?

Not only has Watts titled his book “Self-Help Messiah,” he sees Carnegie as a prime mover in the American shift from the Victorian code of duty and restraint to a culture of personal fulfillment and freewheeling consumption. Without Carnegie and his huge bestseller “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” Watts believes, we might not have had “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” or the Oprah Empire. In Watts’s view, Malcolm Gladwell (in his book “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking”) and Richard H. Thaler and Cass Sunstein (in “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness”) have mined veins first prospected by Carnegie.

The fellow who so successfully applied psychology to self-improvement and decision-making was born on a farm in rural Missouri in 1888. (The surname was originally Carnagey, with a long “a” in the middle, but the grown-up Dale made the spelling conform to the one used by Andrew, the steel magnate and endower of libraries.) In photographs, Carnegie looks decidedly average, except for his big ears. The nondescript appearance suited what became his life’s mission: giving ordinary men and women the tools to lift themselves up from mediocrity.

His own rise began in college, which for him meant the humble State Normal School in Warrensburg, Mo. He arrived on campus in patched clothes, which were the best his impoverished parents could do for him. Eager to overcome this humiliating start, he noticed he had an asset that might make him a big man on campus: a flair for oratory that had first blossomed during religious gatherings. He entered competitions and made enough noise to be elected vice president of his sophomore class.

After graduation he embarked on an obvious career for a glib young man: traveling salesman — for, among others, Armour and Company. Here Carnegie was well-served by another of his gifts: the ability to step back and analyze his success. Watts draws a line from the insights purveyed in “How to Win Friends” back to the habits Carnegie developed while crisscrossing the Midwest to sell beef and pork: “Smiling, becoming interested in other people, avoiding arguments, remembering people’s names, encouraging others to talk about themselves, being a good listener, using encouragement and praise, dramatizing your ideas, and making the other person feel important.”

"Self-help Messiah: Dale Carnegie and Success in Modern America’ by Steven Watts (Other Press)

Aspiring to be more than a peddler of other men’s products, in 1911 Carnegie took a chance by forsaking Armour for a six-month stint at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. He then caught on with a traveling troupe of actors. Still unsatisfied, he gravitated to a field for which he was ideally suited: teaching public speaking, notably to adults for whom getting up in front of a crowd and giving a talk was a terrifying prospect.

Carnegie’s advice for overcoming podium fright was not profound, but he always found catchy ways to phrase it, as in this restatement of the basic idea that you can discipline your nerves: “Never tolerate for an instant the suggestion that your will is not absolutely efficient.” He founded his own public-speaking schools, which flourished once the celebrity traveler Lowell Thomas endorsed them. (Later imbibers of the Carnegie cocktail have included such disparate figures as multibillionaire investor Warren Buffett and hippie radical Jerry Rubin.)

Carnegie’s fame peaked after “How to Win Friends and Influence People” came out in 1936, when so many Americans desperately sought ways to improve their lot. Along with “Gone With the Wind,” it’s a Depression-era blockbuster that may never die — more than 75 years later, both books are still in print.

Almost immediately, though, critics discerned a weakness in “How to Win Friends” — its apparent plug for insincerity. The book lent itself to the interpretation that it doesn’t matter if you consider the guy you’re talking with a schnook and his stamp-collecting hobby a snooze — just manipulate him into thinking the opposite. The unkindest cut may have come from novelist Sinclair Lewis, who accused Carnegie of hawking the values of Lewis’s creation, that glad-handing muttonhead Babbitt. Carnegie cried foul, but the charge of cynicism would not go away, not even after he wrote a less-scheming bestseller, “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.”

Carnegie’s private life was more convoluted than his corn-fed public image might suggest. He and his first wife divorced, his affair with a married woman produced a daughter born out of wedlock (he supported the girl without acknowledging her as his), and at age 56 he married a woman 23 years his junior. When another daughter came along in 1951, Carnegie became an enthusiastic dad. Not for long, though. Stricken with Alzheimer’s disease (at the time, it was diagnosed as hardening of the arteries), he died in 1955, at age 66.

Watts, a history professor at the University of Missouri, is an astute analyst of his subject’s life and times. Unfortunately, though, “Self-Help Messiah” did not get the scissors-wielding editor it needed. The book is far too long and clotted with extraneous detail. At one point, the reader slogs through a four-page disquisition on post-Freudian psychologists and their writings, only to be told, finally, that Carnegie may have known nothing of this parade of thinkers other than what he picked up by being “remarkably sensitive to his cultural milieu.” Carnegie had his limitations, but he did know how to write a fast-paced book calculated to win friends and hold readers.

Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.


Dale Carnegie and Success
in Modern America

By Steven Watts

Other. 582 pp. $29.95