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America the Ruthless

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Born Losers: A History of Failure in America
By Scott A. Sandage
Harvard University Press, 362 pp.

You might approach a book about losers with a certain hauteur. And Scott A. Sandage's opening anecdote about an unidentified loser who died in 1862 lends itself to your hunch that his book is going to be a dutiful trudge through a gallery of garden-variety failures. "I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition," a friend grieved at the man's funeral. That's page one. On page two you find out that the slacker was Henry David Thoreau, the scolding elegist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Ah, but that's Thoreau, and he famously marched to a different drummer. But the Harvard man tried one occupation after another and nothing ever stuck. His friend Emerson thought that his promising beginning had come to nothing. Thoreau himself was never given to self-doubt, but how many of us possess his steely fortitude? "The promise of America is that nobody is a born loser," Sandage observes, "but who has never wondered, 'Am I wasting my life?'"

Sandage's book is a rich and fascinating exposition of how failure, once deemed an accident of fortune, has been turned into an ontological category, an explanation of fate based on an essence of the individual, an intangible identity bequeathed at birth. It is a harsh and cruel judgment, usually disguised as condescension or pity. For children and teenagers, it is a taunt-- "Loser!"--that consigns the designee to hell. As Sandage shows, however, it is actually a relatively new way to describe a particular mix of ill fortune and impecuniousness. Failure has changed from something that happens to a person-- "going broke," "going bust"--to something that a person is: "a name for a deficient self, an identity in the red."

Sandage begins by picking apart responses to the successive "panics," or financial crashes, that structured the life chances of ordinary Americans throughout the nineteenth century. The business cycle churned out a disaster every twenty years or so: 1819, 1837, 1857-1858, 1871-1872, 1893. Few people other than historians know about these panics, because none of them was as catastrophic as the crash of 1929. But at the time, a young nation, at once buoyed by myths of its abundance and assailed by knowledge of its sins, saw in each bust the need to resolve the ancient question: by what logic or plan were some blessed by fortune and others cursed?

Each downturn narrowed and rigidified the American answer. As a national economic system developed that was heavily dependent on British investors and New York banks, the fate of a Missouri farmer or an Alabama slave or a Boston ship carpenter came partly to depend on the vicissitudes of businessmen on a few streets in lower Manhattan. Living through collapses of credit and prices precipitated by mysterious distant events, people struggled to parse the relations between morality, labor, wellbeing, and moneymaking. Were men responsible for their own failures? Did those who failed deserve to fail? Was ruin a punishment of vice, or was it morally neutral, the result only of bad choices? An older Calvinist sense of calling, which prized vocation as one path among others to salvation and condemned the sin of pride, gave way to a conviction that the financially successful life, the happy life, and the moral life were all felicitously bound up in one neat package of righteous ambition.

Sandage draws out the paradox: the fantastical constructions of virtue's rewards depended on reconstructing failure as a moral verdict. The self-made man depended for his get-up-and-go on the broken man. Melville's Bartleby, the wan clerk, is the most famous of a throng of failures who haunted antebellum literature: the drunkards, scoundrels, and wastrels of moral reform tracts; the pitiable beggars, cripples, and kindly gentlemen of reduced circumstances in sentimental fiction.

The country's love of words generated an intricate vocabulary to capture those shades of character that condemned men to ruin. Sandage's inventory, circa 1840, includes humbugs, suckers, flunkies, mopers, lookers-on, old- womanish men, too-honest men, broken men, makeshift men. The first generation of self-help books--such as How to Get Money: Or, Eleven Ways of Making a Fortune--hawked nostrums to save readers from the loser's fate: advice on achieving "personal magnetism" and strategies for "getting along," which increasingly, as the country recovered from the devastating downturn in 1837, meant "getting ahead."

 

The next upswing created a generation of young men, the "go-ahead boys" of the 1840s and 1850s, who thought that they had learned from their failed elders what to avoid. Their fathers were content to stake a competency in life, so as to "get along." But the calamity of 1837 showed that getting along tolerably could turn a man into a sucker. Now a young man on the make intended to "go ahead; be something; make a pile, and make your mark."

The go-ahead boys were formed, economically, by Western land speculation, the cotton boom and the internal slave trade, canal and railroad building sprees, and the expansion of commercial markets. They operated within a byzantine and punitive legal system. Many states had banished debtor's prison by the time the panic of 1837 struck, but a welter of laws remained that could bar insolvent individuals--but not corporations or speculators--from bankruptcy proceedings that canceled their debts.

Thus going broke could entail a life sentence to pay off past mistakes. The shadow of perpetual servitude to debts contracted in better times--the chasm that awaited the decent man should he fall out of favor with creditors-- fostered a temperament of chronic, anxious self-searching among the go-ahead boys. At moments of self-disclosure, they accused themselves of laziness or guilelessness or setting the bar too low. "Just think of such a sucker as me as president!" remarked Abraham Lincoln, a man of the go-ahead generation and a perennial loser at the polls, in 1858 in the Senate race against Stephen A. Douglas (a race that he lost).

Credit, speculation, debt: the spreading net of confidence created a need for confidential reporting on men's trustworthiness. The nation's first credit- rating agencies opened in the 1840s in New York, close to the banks and merchants who needed the information. The agencies invented a lexicon of succinct ratings to sum up a man: "dead beat" (when suing for payment was as pointless as flogging a dead horse), "bad risk," "a great loser," "good for nothing"--or the triumphant "A no. 1." Comically useless in grasping the value of any life, such judgments nonetheless registered as probity in a society fixated on the stark oppositions of credit and debit, gain and loss.

In their power to dictate whether credit was extended or withheld, the bleak ratings shaped the lives they squashed into a Gradgrindian word or two. A "great loser" might be a man such as Solomon Andrews, whose "failed" career Sandage delicately excavates. A physician and scientist, Andrews treated the poor in the New York cholera epidemic of 1832 and then extrapolated his observations of the role played by contaminated groundwater to a design for the first sewer system in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. He served as a government official, both elected and appointed: mayor for two terms and customs collector at Perth Amboy's port. He was an inventor who tried to found an American institute for inventors, and he was the originator of the first airship that could fly against the wind. Too "eccentric" and "unsafe to trust," Andrews could never get the credit he needed to make a go of his inventions. He was a good, useful, upstanding, and accomplished man, but in the agency books he was "good for nothing."

 

Sandage's idea is big and compelling, an axis along which he can align many disparate elements, from bankruptcy law to Moby-Dick (a book about a go-ahead Yankee in extremis). But there is much that he leaves out. He writes only off- handedly about religion, when a major source of can-do ideology was the Second Great Awakening, the series of Protestant revivals that crested in the 1830s and gathered in flocks of exactly the strivers who fascinate Sandage. In stressing individuals' power to work for their own salvation, the revivals imported the profit/loss calculus into the realm of the spirit. In a society saturated with churchliness and religiosity, Christianity's traditional proffer of comfort for the poor and suffering was strictly reserved for the born losers.

At times, the power of his idea tempts Sandage to wrench his material into line. The middle chapters of his book, about the credit agencies, get bogged down in a labored argument about "surveillance," an idea of Michel Foucault's that, thanks to our new era of homeland security, is enjoying a vogue in cultural studies. Foucault treated liberal society as totalitarian in its own way, an invisible system of police powers diffused through language and culture, rather than concentrated in any one agency of control. Sandage uses the model as a jumping-off point to portray lower Manhattan's business district in the 1840s as a hub of identity control, with New York's daguerreotype studios and phrenologists (who inferred clues to a person's character from the shape of his skull) pitching in to pinpoint and sell identity: "never before and nowhere on earth (let alone within a short walk) had a cluster of businesses shared the goal of observing, recording, and selling the distinctive traits of individuals." It's a big stretch. Sandage's argument depends on superficial resemblances in the language of the three kinds of businesses and the fact that they were located close to one another. But then everything was close together in the small commercial district of antebellum Manhattan. The idea of surveillance may lend academic portent, but it burdens Sandage's history with anachronism and lures him into going on too long.

Even Walt Whitman, a self-proclaimed idler and loafer, gets caught up in the Foucauldian dragnet. For the crime of cruising on Broadway and having his daguerreotype taken, Sandage jerks him from his lyrical rounds and throws him into a lineup of surveillance experts. Sandage wrestles Whitman's billowy omniscience ( "I see and hear you, and what you give and take") and his mysticism about the connection of the things of this world to those of the next ("objects gross and the unseen soul are one") into a framework of "commodity and identity": "Even as he tried to lure readers to another country, the poet's distinctively omniscient tone recalled the enterprises of Broadway and Nassau Street."

The tone-deafness shows up in the book's discussion of Lincoln, too, where Sandage's command of verbal nuance, elsewhere so striking, fails him. This is partly a result of his penchant for phrasing that reaches for cleverness: thus the Civil War becomes the "War for Ambition" and Lincoln's "new birth of freedom" is really a vision of a nation of strivers. This Great Emancipator is not too far removed from the old Charles Beard progressive vision of Lincoln as an avatar of bourgeois sensibility.

The muckraking readings are not wrong, exactly (Lincoln's great faith in the country was built on the rock of free labor), but they do not take you anywhere near an adequate understanding of the war or of Lincoln--or, for that matter, of conflicts over slavery and freedom. Sandage's indifference to religious belief blinds him to the deeper sources and resonances of Lincoln's vision of what the end of the war would bring to black and white alike. The conflict that left more than six hundred thousand dead and the largest slave society in the world shattered did not take place because North and South disagreed on how to get ahead. Lincoln was not murdered because John Wilkes Booth had bad credit.

 

But when Sandage returns to his prized subjects, the born losers, he regains his stride. Examining how American culture seeps into the American soul (or at least one kind of white soul), he produces an eloquent and sensitive account of how the country's freedom and hopefulness paradoxically drove some toward self- torment and self-loathing. His last section and the epilogue describe failure ideology at full flower in the forty years before the Great Depression. By the 1890s, the tyrannical dichotomy was branded into American sensibility. "Even more than they had in antebellum America," Sandage writes, "the self-made man and the broken man represented the poles of an ideology of manhood based on achieved identity--the conviction that all men earned their fates and thus deserved whatever credit or disgrace they accrued."

The terrible depression of 1893--when Sister Carrie's Hurstwood, once a mover and shaker in Chicago, drifted down through layers of ever cheaper lodgings to land in a Bowery flophouse--drove respectable men to compose desperate "begging letters" to robber-baron successes. John D. Rockefeller received as many as fifteen thousand a week in 1894. He saved some of them, creating a trove of failure stories buried in the family archives. It is a measure of Sandage's extraordinary imagination--and his excellent scholarly training--that he should have even found this extraordinary evidence. Sources like these do not just jump out at a writer on the prowl. The archive of letters to Rockefeller marks the point at which cultural meanings poured into the recesses of the soul, an elusive location for any historian to track down. Sandage uses the letters to trace the currents and eddies of pride, self- reproach, and bitterness in the sensibilities of those about to go under. "The intimacy of the letters was exceeded only by their lack of originality: beggars from Des Moines, Brooklyn, and New Orleans wrote the same things, in almost the same order, pouring what they must have felt as unique heartbreak into relentlessly formulaic letters."

Formulaic they may be, but Sandage understands that banality is a primary expression of humanity. He penetrates the generic to find the unique core of suffering in the pleas, where men balanced their existential accounts of themselves. One sixty-seven-year-old failure, who had crossed Dun and Bradstreet's path in 1879 as an "honest, honorable man," ended up ten years later pleading with Rockefeller for a loan. While he cited his bona fides as a striver, Sandage observes, the man nonetheless bitterly resented the ideology that drove him without respite. "I have been Struggling incessantly," he wrote the tycoon. "Not because I am an imbecile, shiftless, lazy, listlessly, loafing about, no, not a bit of it, but the reverse is true. I am worried to death."

 

Losers are making a comeback these days, at least on television. Stella's three weirdos, dressed impeccably in business suits that have no bearing on their actual lives as unemployed layabouts, create a delectable mixture of slapstick, incompetence, and penury topped off by an unflappable yuppie lordliness utterly impervious to the trio's worldly standing as sad sacks. Lisa Kudrow works a vein of pathetic dignity in The Comeback, where she plays a middle-aged actress, once a hot number in a Friends-like comedy, reduced to starring in a second-string reality show that follows the now frumpy middle- aged has-been in her comeback role in a second-string sitcom as a frumpy middle- aged foil to a bevy of starlets. And Entourage, a sharp comic inquiry into Hollywood's ruthless worship of winning, features the unabashed loser Turtle, who cheerfully depends on Vince, his movie-star buddy, for rent, food, and cash. Johnny Drama, Vince's wounded and ludicrous half brother, tags along too, a failed actor convinced that calf implants will bring him the success that has always eluded him.

But all these shows have to struggle against a gravitational field of viewers' impatience. Sympathizing with losers may be possible, but admiring them is not. In our America, we are too much in thrall to winners to identify with losers for more than a few episodes. It takes the Marx Brothers' aplomb laced with malice, or Woody Allen's erstwhile ability to conjure up the schlemiel, or Chaplin's angelic composure, to overcome an audience's incipient irritation at seeing someone screw up or humiliate himself too many times. The classic comic losers carried audiences along with them because they kicked free of the winners with such efficiency, such freedom, and left them, metaphorically or actually, in the dust. In the new failure shows, the losers can never kick the winners in the pants. Inwardly, they are never really free. These figures are supposed to be funny, but after a while they are dispiriting. Is this really the best that the talented Lisa Kudrow can do these days--stage herself as a middle-aged actress who can't get herself a life and hope that this is funny enough to be a success?

 

At its best, Born Losers is an angry and mournful book, although its emotional pitch is muted. The tone is just right. Rooted in an American studies tradition, Sandage often returns to an older strain of probing moral criticism of the country. This is the sort of deeply critical and deeply caring book that is too seldom seen in cultural studies. He does not write in the pity-the-poor way; he is not urging us to give alms. But you cannot come away from this elegant book without a heightened awareness of the devastating costs of the go- ahead mandate for the downsized corporate executive, the bank teller denied a promotion year after year, the college graduate struggling to spring loose of internships to land a real job. As Sandage points out, we readily remember Willy Loman, the "doomed striver" whom Arthur Miller burned into the country's imagination in Death of a Salesman, but we seldom recall the lacerating monologue that Loman's wife delivers about the man's value. "And you tell me he has no character?" she demands of their sons. "The man who never worked a day but for your benefit? When does he get the medal for that?" Working every day (or going out every day to find a job where you can work every day) should count, by any decent measure, as making your mark.

But our views of work descend directly from the 1850s: these are only ways to get along "tolerably," a step removed from being a sucker or a "looker-on." It's no wonder that we have before Congress the most punitive bankruptcy bill in the nation's history, which (as this magazine has rightly argued) will wipe out a second chance for debtors just as the old antebellum state laws did. In Bush's America, the Reaganite revival of the Gospel of Wealth has coarsened into government's open servility to business. For the bill's proponents, desperate debtors (a recent Harvard study found that people filing for bankruptcy are typically swamped by some combination of unemployment and medical expenses) are invisible, transformed into clever villains who rip off the credit-card companies to throw around borrowed cash on fancy watches and designer clothes. Those who now rule America seem to believe that bad things happen only to bad people, that personal misfortune is a sign of personal irresponsibility.

In the weeks after September 11, the pages and pages of New York Times obituaries unforgettably summed up the victims in a terse, eloquent paragraph or two: not many more words than a credit report. Hundreds of lives were laid out in columns, the only gravestones they had. There were bowlers and Girl Scout leaders and karaoke singers; great dancers; beloved uncles and aunts; women planning big trips abroad and men planning big trips back home. There were winners, obviously, and there must have been losers, too. But the remarkable thing was that, for a moment at least, you couldn't tell the winners and the losers apart.

 

Christine Stansell is a professor of history at Princeton University.
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