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Before Oprah

by Florence King

Self-Help Messiah: Dale Carnegie and Success in Modern America, by Steven Watts (Other Press, 592 pp., $29.95)

We have been together a long time, Gentle Reader, so you will not be surprised by my reaction to this enormous biography of the menacing extrovert who wrote How to Win Friends and Influence People. I feel as if I have been drowned in a half-full glass. I also feel as if I have read it not just once but over and over, because both subject and biographer are repeating rifles who between them have pushed the page count up by about 200 more than necessary. Coping with both of them in the same book is like being caught between two hiccuppers.

Dale Carnegie, who never met a point he did not hammer home, filled his writing and speeches with constant references to the care and feeding of the mark he called “the other fellow” (“Let the other fellow think it’s his idea. . . . Never argue with the other fellow. . . . Keep repeating the other fellow’s name because it’s music to his ears”), all the while commanding his worshipful followers to find their individuality because “it was yours!”: “Yours! YOURS! Dig. Dig. Dig. It is there. Never doubt it.”

Equally exhausting is biographer Steven Watts, a University of Missouri professor, who repeats himself and then hauls in additional sources to repeat his repetition. Here he is describing Carnegie’s early triumph as a traveling salesman: “He grasped the need to establish personal relationships and then maintain them in order to sell goods. Success demanded a pleasant personality, ease in meeting and conversing with people, using stories and anecdotes to hold attention, and conveying an infectious zeal for one’s product.” Yet on the very next page he says the same thing when summarizing another writer’s opinion:

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 — all of these techniques were honed in the dusty towns and bustling general stores of the South Dakota of the early 1900s.

Watts clearly belongs to the No Note Card Left Behind school of researchers; if they found it, they’re gonna by-God use it whether they need it or not, though this does not explain the passage in which he quotes himself verbatim.

All that being said, it’s a pretty good book because Dale Carnegie was a piece of work and Watts reveals some mysterious, even avant-garde aspects of him that we don’t expect to find in a Missouri farm boy who looked and sounded like Harry Truman. He was the younger son of poor farmers named “Carnagey” (accent on the second syllable), and his birth in 1888 made him one of those lucky people who are born into an era made to order for their particular personality type. The stern Victorian ideal of “character” was yielding to the 20th century’s freer and more fluid ideal of “personality.” As the old strict rules of behavior loosened, life had to be played by ear and the tone-deaf could no longer survive on rectitude alone. America was changing from a rural to an urban nation, and young men were leaving the farms for the cities. They were ambitious to better themselves, and they had to learn to deal with the kind of people they had not known all their lives.

Dale was one of many such young men, but he had an advantage: an outgoing mother with the gift of gab. Determined to make something of her sons, she enrolled them in the free Missouri State Teachers College, but Dale did not want to teach children. His only interest was the debating society, in which he quickly became a star. This was his métier, he decided; he wanted to become a lecturer on the Chautauqua circuit, where William Jennings Bryan had first made his mark. He wanted to get up and talk and make a living at it.

It was the era of correspondence courses and adult night schools, so he devised a course in public speaking and persuaded the New York YMCA to let him conduct it live. It succeeded so well that he got a request from travel writer Lowell Thomas to help him brush up a speech he was due to deliver at the Smithsonian. Thomas was so pleased by the result that he hired Dale as his manager and took him on his travels. He subbed for Thomas on several occasions, but audiences were disappointed at not seeing the popular idol in person, so Dale quit the Thomas enterprise in deep gloom. His intense descents into depression over this rejection were the first stirrings of his real desire: fame. The early movies were already setting some people apart simply because they were famous — why not him?

But Harry Truman lookalikes do not make matinee idols. He got only one minor role, in an obscure and mediocre stage play, and took to selling neckties on the road to eke out his living. He made a lot more money on his highly successful 1915 book, The Art of Public Speaking, before being drafted into World War I.

In post-war Europe, he wrote a bad novel and had an unsuccessful marriage. In the late 1920s, he abruptly returned alone to America and changed the spelling of his name to “Carnegie.” Watts thinks the new spelling reflected a decision to identify with the unshackled 20th-century culture of wealth and fame symbolized by Andrew Carnegie.

The steel magnate could lay claim to something else that thrilled his new namesake: a manager who was the first American to earn a salary of $1 million a year. His name was Charles Schwab, and all the steelworkers down to the humblest puddler loved him for his outgoing manner and big smile. Dale Carnegie wrote about Schwab often and lavishly.

Another man of the same type thrilled him in the grim Depression year of 1933. Carnegie did not have the slightest interest in politics, but Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” was exactly what he himself told people who dissolved in stage fright when they had to make a speech. Soon there would be two optimists running the country: In 1936, FDR was reelected in a landslide and How to Win Friends and Influence People was published.

The book’s reception was predictable. The Nation called it “the best outline of the science of tail-wagging and hand-licking ever written.” The New York Times said it was designed for people “who long to be told how they can think for themselves.” H. L. Mencken, Malcolm Cowley, and Heywood Broun all joined the lynching party. To a man, the intellectuals savaged the book, but the vast majority of fellows, and other fellows, loved it.

Inspired by the book’s enormous sales, Carnegie came to see himself as a healer without portfolio. “I know men and women can banish worry, fear, and illnesses and can transform their lives by changing their thoughts. I know! I know!! I know!!!” Consumed with feverish certainty, he delved into the psychological works of William James, New Thought (Mary Baker Eddy), Positive Thinking, and the theories of behavioral psychologist Henry C. Link, who called introverts “selfish persons” and offered as proof his memorable contention that “Jesus Christ . . . was an extrovert.”

The key to Carnegie’s popularity, writes Watts, was “his unique genius for soaking up new, controversial ideas that were floating around in the broader cultural atmosphere and synthesizing them into a popular form.” Watts calls him “the father of the modern self-help movement,” and we are hard put to disagree, considering the endless stream of self-help books that have been inundating us for decades. Thanks to Carnegie, we have become a nation of twelve-stepping, revolving-door rehab aficionados who never saw a support group we didn’t like. Deepak Chopra, Dr. Phil, and Bill “I feel your pain” Clinton all do a good imitation of Carnegie, but his reincarnation in our midst is a woman. “Oprah Winfrey is America’s therapist,” says Watts. “It is now, incontrovertibly, the Age of Oprah.”

Watts tends to be an on-the-other-hander, but he comes down hard on our self-help mind-set in his superbly written conclusion:

It has created an omnivorous, perpetual appetite for “feeling good about yourself.” . . . Too many modern Americans harbor outlandish emotional expectations [that encourage] wild swings between a grandiose pole of “empowerment” [and] a pathetic pole of “victimization,” where outside forces consistently conspire to frustrate one’s entitlement to bliss. . . . Personal desires, fears, and problems tend to overwhelm all considerations of the public good as much human interaction and governance is forced into the mold of the psychotherapy session or the support group or the therapeutic state.

That atones for all the maddening aspects of this book. Skip where you have to, but read it.

– Florence King can be reached at P.O. Box 7113, Fredericksburg, VA 22404.

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