View Full Version : 'Born Losers': A History of Failure in America

friedrich braun
Tuesday, February 1st, 2005, 02:22 PM
'Born Losers'

By Jonathan Yardley

Sunday, January 30, 2005; Page BW02

BORN LOSERS: A History of Failure in America

By Scott A. Sandage

Harvard Univ. 362 pp. $35

"Here's to the winners," Frank Sinatra used to sing, belting out Joe Raposo's lyrics as only a winner can. "Here's to the winners all of us can be." Right, and if you believe that, have I got a bridge for you. One of the truths of human existence is that, to one degree or another, all of us are born losers -- in the end, of course, everyone loses, even Michael Jordan and Donald Trump -- and that coming to terms with disappointment, accepting the inevitability of it, is one of life's inescapable challenges. Kris Kristofferson, not Raposo, got it right: "Nobody wins."

This may be a core truth, but it's usually ignored or scanted by historians and social scientists, for whom triumph is an irresistible story and who tend to write about losers only when they go down in spectacular flames: Napoleon at Waterloo, Hitler in the bunker, Sonny Liston flat on the mat. Yet though the losses and setbacks with which most of us are familiar rarely are dramatic, they are intensely human and have a lot to say about us as individuals and about the society in which we live. They are stories that deserve to be told.

Which is what Scott Sandage has attempted to do in Born Losers. By examining the lives and careers of a number of businessmen who failed during the 19th century, he portrays what we reflexively think of as the dark side of the American dream but what is, in reality, an only slightly exaggerated mirror of the reality with which ordinary people -- i.e., thee and me -- are fated to contend. He explores what he rather nicely calls "the hidden history of pessimism in a culture of optimism" by recording the "voices and experiences of men who failed (and of their wives and families)" as expressed in their "private letters, diaries, business records, bankruptcy cases, suicide notes, political mail, credit agency reports, charity requests and memoirs." In so doing he examines the ways in which our attitudes toward failure and our ways of measuring it have changed; if at moments Sandage lapses into the clotted patois of contemporary academia (he teaches history at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh), for the most part Born Losers is readable, interesting and thoroughly researched.

As the 18th century began, Sandage argues, American attitudes toward failure were divided. On the one hand people tended to believe that it was a sign of personal and moral shortcomings (Benjamin Franklin "blamed failure on laziness, drunkenness, greed, ignorance, extravagance and a host of other sins"), but on the other there was the nettlesome dilemma posed when upright, decent people failed: "The vicissitudes of capitalism were such that honest dealings and hard work could earn failure. Moral maxims never seemed to fit when the 'great loser' was a hardworking chap around the corner."

Despite that conflict, Americans were inclined in those days to believe that the explanation for failure could be located within the person who had failed. A Boston merchant, lecturing in 1846 with the smugness toward which the wealthy class of that city always has been inclined, said: "Failures that arise from inevitable misfortune alone, are not so numerous as they are generally supposed to be. In most cases insolvency is caused by mistakes that originate in personal character." A couple of years later Hunt's Merchants Magazine published "Morals in Trade," which claimed:

"In most cases . . . the ruined man has brought his affairs into hopeless condition by his grasping spirit involving him in ruinous extensions and speculations; or by his overreaching disposition, which, becoming notorious, has driven off his customers; or by his meanness, which has disguised them; or by some other ingredient in his moral mixture."

But a funny thing happened: Good people kept right on failing. Through no apparent fault save bad luck, bad timing, flawed judgment or any combination thereof, men who were trying to run honest businesses found themselves in prison for their debts. The result, in mid-century, was a gradual shift in attitudes -- the essence of which was, "the man who failed was at fault, but the law would forgive him anyway."

After a prolonged political struggle, bankruptcy laws came into being following the Civil War. They permitted people whose business or investments failed to get a new start in life without being permanently crippled by those failures. The rise of financial speculation "made failure seem as much a matter of chance as defect," and what had once been regarded as "knavery" metamorphosed into "a new testament, an American gospel." As the Wall Street Journal said in 1851: "The principle enters into all the ramifications of life, that those seeking the gain of money are not the only speculators: but that men, women and children, are all endeavoring to acquire something of which they are not now possessed -- in fact, that we are all speculators."

As speculation and attendant failures increased, a system gradually arose that permitted risk of failure to be evaluated. In the 1840s an "ardent social reformer" named Lewis Tappan established the Mercantile Agency, a "direct ancestor of Dun & Bradstreet," which "sold 'information with regard to the credit and affairs of every man of business' and rapidly established itself as a national bureau of standards for judging winners and losers." Unlike today's credit bureaus, which deal almost entirely in cold numbers, Tappan and others who followed his example dealt in subjective evaluations:

"We had faces then, and getting a feel for a stranger took more than an abstract ranking. . . . [Agencies] supplied character sketches, flashbacks, foreshadowings and trick endings. A steamboatman's case rambled like a dockside yarn about 'one of those unfortunate men who have to spend a lifetime mending the evils of a few years in early manhood.' Notes from Ohio romanticized 'a clever goodhearted, illiterate man who gives way to impulses & by education & early associations, rather than by lack of principle, associates with men of unenviable character & notoriety.' "

The credit bureaus altered the American vocabulary. A risky person was a "bad egg" or "good for nothing," a safe bet was "good as wheat" or "Number one." Sometimes men emerged as "trustworthy yet not to be trusted." Sandage writes about two men who fell into that unhappy category: "Foresighted and uniquely successful in their own ways, these good men were not 'good for' much if any financial credit. In the agency's ledgers, the moral of these failure stories became clear: redeeming characters sometimes had no book value."

As the agencies' influence expanded, a "genuine conundrum" developed that remains to this day: "the emerging conflict between the businessman's need to buy and sell confidential information and the individual's desire to control access to his private business." Information had become what it is today -- a commodity -- and a whole new set of business, legal, social and moral issues arose with it, as credit services sought to quantify success and failure in ever more specific, objective ways. Gradually, too, failure was redefined, and people came to have more sympathy for those who suffered it as a result:

"Failure had become modern, a low hum rather than a loud crash. It meant a fragmented life, not necessarily a shattered one. Anyone could be a failure if that identity required utter stagnation instead of outright misfortune. By the time Mark Twain imagined Tom and Huck fading away 'under the mold,' the American idea of failure centered on problems recognizably our own: aimlessness, routine, stress, conformity, loss of individuality, the dead-end job, the disgrace of being 'merely' average. Losers plodded their lives away in offices, factories and boardrooms."

In two words: Willy Loman. Whatever the artistic and literary deficiencies of "Death of a Salesman," Arthur Miller's famous play "burned the contours of the doomed striver into our imagination," turning the failed man into "the American everyman," one who "personifies what really has happened to us or to people we know and love in spite of their flaws." In substantial part thanks to Willy Loman, "the image of failure has shifted, from the overambitious bankrupt to the underambitious plodder." We understand the human side of failure far more keenly than we did a couple of centuries ago, but we still fear it and still believe -- against all the evidence -- that somehow we can and will escape it.

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

2005 The Washington Post Company