Self-help Messiah: Dale Carnegie and Success in Modern America


An illuminating biography of the man who taught Americans “how to win friends and influence people”
Before Stephen Covey, Oprah Winfrey, and Malcolm Gladwell there was Dale Carnegie. His book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, became a best seller worldwide, and Life magazine named him one of “the most important Americans of the twentieth century.” This is the ...

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Self-help Messiah: Dale Carnegie and Success in Modern America

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An illuminating biography of the man who taught Americans “how to win friends and influence people”
Before Stephen Covey, Oprah Winfrey, and Malcolm Gladwell there was Dale Carnegie. His book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, became a best seller worldwide, and Life magazine named him one of “the most important Americans of the twentieth century.” This is the first full-scale biography of this influential figure.
Dale Carnegie was born in rural Missouri, his father a poor farmer, his mother a successful preacher. To make ends meet he tried his hand at various sales jobs, and his failure to convince his customers to buy what he had to offer eventually became the fuel behind his future glory. Carnegie quickly figured out that something was amiss in American education and in the ways businesspeople related to each other. What he discovered was as simple as it was profound: Understanding people’s needs and desires is paramount in any successful enterprise. Carnegie conceived his book to help people learn to relate to one another and enrich their lives through effective communication. His success was extraordinary, so hungry was 1920s America for a little psychological insight that was easy to apply to everyday affairs.
Self-help Messiah tells the story of Carnegie’s personal journey and how it gave rise to the movement of self-help and personal reinvention.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 08/19/2013
The man whose bestselling How to Win Friends and Influence People defined 20th-century American normalcy was a deeply subversive figure, according to this penetrating biography. Historian Watts (The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century) follows Carnegie as he abandons his family’s rural poverty and rock-ribbed Protestantism to become a salesman, actor, theater impresario, Lost Generation novelist, and educator who developed his public-speaking courses into a prescription for psychological renovation and a template for later self-help therapies. Along the way, the author argues, Carnegie embodied and promoted a revolutionary shift from a Victorian code of stern morality, hard work, and self-denial to a modern ethos that locates success in a pleasing personality, a canny stroking of other people’s egos, and the pursuit of self-actualization—with implications both liberating and sinister. (A new biography of mass murderer Charles Manson notes his use of manipulative ploys gleaned from a Dale Carnegie course.) Watts situates Carnegie’s story in a rich account of the dawning age of consumerism, mass entertainment, and a new business culture centered on salesmanship and smoothly meshing corporate bureaucracy, rather than rugged individualism. Watts’s lucid prose and shrewd analysis gives us an absorbing portrait of Carnegie and the America he both reflected and shaped. Photos. (Nov.)
From the Publisher
"An insightful and comprehensive new biography." —The Economist

"[A] penetrating biography...Watts’s lucid prose and shrewd analysis gives us an absorbing portrait of Carnegie and the America he both reflected and shaped." —Publisher's Weekly (Starred Review)

“Henry Ford, Walt Disney, Hugh Hefner, and now Dale Carnegie. Steven Watts is the Plutarch of American modernity.” —Robert Westbrook, author of John Dewey and American Democracy

Self-Help Messiah is carefully researched and vigorously written, a pleasure to read and ponder. Don't miss it!” —Jackson Lears, author of Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920

“Steven Watts’s Self-Help Messiah is a fantastic page turner about the complicated pop guru of the American Positive Thinking Movement. Dale Carnegie was a master marketeer and common sense philosopher. This first rate biography does the legend justice. Highly recommended.” —Douglas Brinkley, author of Cronkite 

"Compelling...Watts captures a momentous period of change in America and makes a forceful case for Carnegie's significance in it." —Barnes & Noble Revicews

[Steven Watts's] descriptions...are poignant.  Watts shows how particularly attuned Carnegie was to the psychological needs of Americans beaten down by the Great Depression, who needed to hear that positive thinking would garner positive results." —NPR, Fresh Air

"A fascinating portrait of the father of self-help and incisive analysis of the mercurial era that produced him." —Kirkus Reviews

" an astute analyst of his subject’s life and times." —Washington Post

"Watts captures a momentous period of change in America and makes a forceful case for Carnegie's significance in it." —The Christian Science Monitor

“A…fine new biography” —Harper’s

“[Watts] paints a fascinating picture of a man who ‘struggled to accommodate his yearning for affluence with a genuine respect for moral virtues’ and whose story ‘is, in essence, the story of America itself in a dynamic era of change.’” —City Journal

"[Self-Help Messiah] should be required reading for anyone concerned by the ongoing drift from what had been a republic of individual citizens downward into a class-defined social-nationalist state that would have appalled Kafka and Orwell...[Watts] does a masterful job of weaving in Carnegie’s impact on the lives of individuals being tossed by the waves of industrialization, urbanization and mass media that dominated the last century and this." —Washington Times

"[Watts] weaves a very compelling and readable story about the human spirit and the psychological needs of a whole generation who were desperate to believe positive thinking and self-development would create a new and brighter future." —Waterloo Region Record

Kirkus Reviews
Watts (Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream, 2008, etc.) recounts the life and times of motivational guru Dale Carnegie (1888–1955). The author goes beyond simple biography to explore the sea-change in American thought heralded by the author of How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936), examining the social, technological and economic upheaval of the early 20th century that shifted emphasis from the idea of "character" to "personality," a more individual-centered focus made possible by unprecedented opportunities for prosperity. Carnegie--born Carnagey--the shrewd author may have sought to align himself in the public mind with successful industrialist Andrew, no relation--grew up in poverty on a farm in Missouri, baffled by the failure of his parents' devotion to Protestant and Victorian ideals of hard work, self-denial and moral rectitude to reap the rewards of material success. Carnegie undertook a number of professions--successfully, in the case of selling meat products, less so in the fields of journalism, acting and fiction writing--before finding great success as a public speaker preaching the gospel of personal reinvention, positive thinking and the importance of cultivating relationship skills. His classic manual on the subject was an instant, massive hit, a revolutionary distillation of Carnegie's principals that continues to sell in significant numbers today and essentially inaugurated the still thriving genre of self-help. Watts portrays Carnegie not as a wildly original thinker or electrifying guru figure but rather as an easygoing, avuncular, self-deprecating (he long maintained a file entitled "Damned Fool Things I Have Done") man, a brilliant synthesizer of ideas from psychology, philosophy, advertising and his own experience. He was an intuitive savant who grasped the nature of his changing times and crafted a message that resonated with a mass culture struggling to adapt. A fascinating portrait of the father of self-help and incisive analysis of the mercurial era that produced him.
Library Journal
Here Watts (history, Univ. of Missouri; The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life) has written the first full-scale biography of Dale Carnegie (1888–1955), the author of the self-help title How To Win Friends and Influence People, one of the best sellers of the 20th century and the predecessor of such books as Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Watts draws comparisons among Carnegie's life, his public speaking activities, and his book. He describes his subject's early years in the Midwest growing up in a farming family, his first encounters with public speaking in college, his work as a traveling salesman before moving to New York to begin a full-time career as a public speaker and author, and, finally, the development of his famous book. Watts shows how Carnegie had a mixed impact on American culture; he showed people how better to consider the emotions of others but only for the purpose of improving their own situations. However, his influence can still be felt in 21st-century America through the works of authors such as Oprah Winfrey and Joel Osteen as well as those by researchers who address relationships among people, including Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence. VERDICT This volume will appeal to those who enjoy reading biographies, people who are interested in the history of the self-help movement in America, and students of the cultural history of the United States immediately before and after World War II.—Nathan Rupp, Yale Univ. Medical Lib., New Haven, CT
The Barnes & Noble Review

Growing up in rural Missouri, Dale Carnegey absorbed many lessons from his pious mother and father, but they were not the lessons his parents intended. Despite their unrelenting labor and upstanding morals, the family lived in bleak poverty. In 1913, several years after Dale had left home, his father sold off a chunk of his farmland at a considerable profit. "Now you see how money is made," Dale wrote his parents upon hearing the news. "It is not by hard work."

Carnegey, scarred by the deprivation of his childhood and obsessed with the question of how to make it in America, would go on to write one of the bestselling nonfiction books of all time, How to Win Friends and Influence People — changing his name to the now familiar Carnegie along the way. Steven Watts, history professor at the University of Missouri, has written the first full-length biography of Carnegie, Self-Help Messiah, and he makes the compelling argument that "the story of Dale Carnegie is, in essence, the story of America itself in a dynamic era of change."

That change was indeed rapid and far-reaching. Carnegie was born in 1888, and through his early life the nation experienced, in Watts's words, "not only massive industrialization, mass immigration, and the closing of the frontier but the rapid growth of a modern consumer economy." With economic and demographic transformation came an attendant shift in cultural values, as strict Victorian moral codes lost ground and "character" came to be seen as less important than "personality."

Carnegie, who discovered a talent for rhetoric in college, had brief stints as a salesman and an actor before finding his niche teaching a popular public speaking course in New York. Beginning the venture as a speculative sideline when his other prospects had come up empty, Carnegie discovered enormous demand for a class in how to overcome a common anxiety, particularly among ambitious businessmen. The Dale Carnegie Course in Effective Speaking spread to other cities (and, eventually, countries); it evolved beyond speechmaking to address the larger question of how to get ahead in the new bureaucratic corporate economy. Carnegie and the instructors he trained stressed positive thinking, pop psychology, and salesmanship, teaching that the key to success lay in knowing how to "handle" people properly.

When Carnegie adapted the course's principles to a book in 1936, Watts observes, he had the good fortune to be presenting "the right ideas at the right time." Though panned by critics, who saw its worldview as cynical and manipulative, How to Win Friends and Influence People was an immediate sensation, grabbed up by a demoralized population struggling to recover from the Depression; to date it has sold more than 30 million copies. In chapters like "Fundamental Techniques in Handling People," "Six Ways to Make People Like You," and "Making People Glad to Do What You Want," Carnegie offered concrete advice in brisk, folksy, and inspirational prose. "Everybody in the world is seeking happiness," Carnegie wrote. "And there is one sure way to find it. That is by controlling your thoughts." Watts, who has written biographies of Hugh Hefner, Walt Disney, and Henry Ford, credits Carnegie with being an early and effective popularizer of therapeutic discourse, calling his significant, albeit ambivalent, legacy "the establishment of a robust self-help movement that has shaped modern American values in fundamental ways."

Like the author's previous biographies, Self-Help Messiah is excessively long, in no small part because it is repetitive and overly detailed (those with a need to know that Carnegie's system for storing interesting articles involved "using large yellow manila envelopes as files and filling them with newspaper clippings, magazine extracts, and personal notes" might disagree). It also occasionally veers into hyperbole, as when Watts ventures that "much as Franklin Roosevelt saved capitalism during the Great Depression, Dale Carnegie saved the culture of individualism that accompanied it."

The book's greatest strength lies in its exploration of broader themes; Watts captures a momentous period of change in America and makes a forceful case for Carnegie's significance in it. Harder to capture is Carnegie himself, who remains, despite efforts to untangle his inner life, somewhat inscrutable here. Watts trustingly cites descriptions by Carnegie's contemporaries of the celebrity author as genuine, encouraging, and avuncular. Since Carnegie literally wrote the book on handling people, however, one wonders how accurately those impressions capture his true nature. But if Self-Help Messiah ends with its subject still a remote figure, that's a problem unlikely to burden Watts's next biography. His footnotes reveal that he's at work on a book about one of Carnegie's spiritual descendants — Oprah Winfrey — someone Americans already feel they know quite well.

Barbara Spindel has covered books for Time Out New York,, Details, and Spin. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies.

Reviewer: Barbara Spindel

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781590515020
  • Publisher: Other Press, LLC
  • Publication date: 10/29/2013
  • Pages: 592
  • Sales rank: 518,100
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.24 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Steven Watts has published a number of biographies on popular figures: The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life, Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream, and The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century, which was chosen as one of five finalists for the 2005 Los Angeles Times Book Award in biography. He teaches history at the University of Missouri.

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Read an Excerpt

   On a cold January evening in 1936, a great horde descended on the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York City. Three thousand people crammed into the grand ballroom and the balcony encircling it, while hundreds more stood shivering on the sidewalk outside, unable to find even standing room as the hotel staff frantically wedged the doors shut and hoped the fire marshal would not appear. The throng was responding to a series of full-page ads in the New York Sun that promised “Increase
Your Income,” “Learn to Speak Effectively,” “Prepare for Leadership.” 
   Yet the crowd did not spring from the ranks of the working class or the desperately unemployed who were struggling to survive in the dark days of the Great Depression. It came from a more prosperous stratum, but one equally anxious about sliding into failure—entrepreneurs, businessmen, shopkeepers, salesmen, middle managers, white-collar executives, professional men. As the audience listened attentively for the next hour, fifteen figures paraded before the single microphone on stage and gave three-minute testimonials. Understanding the principles of human relations, the speakers proclaimed, had pointed them toward success… 
   After these endorsements, a short, trim man with steel-rimmed glasses, a ramrod posture, and a sincere, soothing voice with a slight Midwestern twang, took the stage. Dale Carnegie, creator of the selfimprovement course being praised, admitted that he was gratified by the large audience. But, he added quickly, “I have no doubt as to why you are here. You are not here because you are interested in me. You are here because you are interested in yourself and the solution to your problems.” He assured the crowd that each listener could learn the techniques that had improved so many lives. Each could understand how to be a good listener, make people like you instantly, develop an enthusiastic attitude, handle difficult personal situations, and win others to your way of thinking. Each could be successful. Every student taking his course, he declared in conclusion, “begins to get self-confidence. After all, why shouldn’t they—and why shouldn’t you?”

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