Scott Sandage: The Historian Who Writes About Losers

Historians in the News

Mark Roth, in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (4-25-05):

Scott Sandage was always fascinated by the row upon row of self-help books at Barnes & Noble and Borders -- so many evangelistic prescriptions for how to become richer, happier, smarter and better-looking.

But as a historian and a student of human nature, he wondered: Why aren't there any books on failure?

The smug answer might be that nobody would pay money to learn how to fail.

Still, there are the hard realities of daily life. Half of all small businesses go under within the first five years. Four out of 10 initial marriages collapse. The top baseball players, sports analysts are fond of saying, only get a hit about three times out of 10.

And even Abraham Lincoln, before he became president, once wrote that "Men are greedy to publish the successes of [their] efforts, but meanly shy as to publishing the failures of men. Men are ruined by this one-sided practice of concealment of blunders and failures."

Pondering the meaning of all this led Sandage, an associate professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University, on a 10-year journey that resulted in his writing "Born Losers: A History of Failure in America," which was awarded the Thomas J. Wilson Prize as best first book published this year by Harvard University Press.

Along the way, Sandage discovered that starting sometime in the 1800s, failure in America changed from an event to a state of being.

If a person "failed" in the late 1700s, it meant his business had crumbled.

When a person failed in the late 1800s, it meant that he himself had come up short. Not only that, but the standard for failure grew increasingly tougher as the 19th century progressed. At first, a man was a "loser" if he went out of business. By the end of the century, though, he was a "loser" even if he was steadily employed, but simply failed to advance.

So, by 1900, Sandage said, "the definition that we live with today was in place -- that a loser is an aimless plodder through life who's not ambitious enough to get ahead."

What is remarkable, Sandage said, is that "the myth of success in America developed at the exact same time in history when the mechanisms for achieving success were becoming less workable."...

comments powered by Disqus