Born Losers: A History of Failure in America by Scott A. Sandage

It is strange to see with what feverish ardor the Americans pursue their own welfare, and to watch the vague dread that constantly torments them lest they should not have chosen the shortest path which may lead to it.
— Alexis DeToqueville

Although there are plenty of phony moral imperatives behind the recently approved Bush bankruptcy bill — embraced by both rich republicans and country-club democrats alike — the new laws will benefit predatory credit-card companies and hurt working-class families saddled with unmanageable debt. This action represents yet another chapter in America’s history of status-conscious political elites using legislation to bully their socio-economic inferiors. And in Born Losers, professor Scott A. Sandage reminds us of an age-old fault even more despicable than being broke: to lack ambition in an America where “berry picking was a higher crime than bankruptcy.”

Born Losers is an in-depth study of the 19th Century origins of how “failure” became identity — and the importance of one’s “achieved identity” in America. Sandage also uncovers the rickety foundations of our credit-based economy, and the 1840s rise of the credit-rating business — sparked by distrust among success-chasing men in an unstable, panic-prone entrepreneurial society. This combination of greed and pessimism led to the advent of contract labor, and the fallacy of occupational “free agency.” And with contract labor came the middle-class office drone and the modern “alienated” worker — as represented by Melville’s reluctant copyist, Bartleby.

Possibly the most original and provocative scholarship in the book is the slyly ironic, comparative close-reading of the detailed observational language found in Walt Whitman’s poetry, and the similar language of surveillance used by professional snoop Lewis Tappan and his credit-rating Mercantile Agency. Sandage sneaks in some playfully caustic jabs at the proto-Beat poet, who “chanted democracy in the voice of a detective.” To Sandage, Whitman and Tappan innovated similar ways of “observing and cataloguing identity” for ultimately divergent ends.

In fact, Sandage constantly reiterates the credit-economy consequences of one’s “achieved identity,” partly built by the often-subjective prophecies and assessments peddled by Tappan’s agency. In the mid 1800s identity was becoming increasingly tied to one’s occupation, and thus becoming a market commodity that needed precision management. The master-plots and narratives of the Mercantile Agency’s credit ledgers often blended fact with rumor (and outright fiction). And through these often arbitrary and unfair practices, credit-rating narratives would have the influence to determine who gets the “right to rise.”

Sandage keenly observes the importance of the post-Civil War, post-Emancipation era in prompting the financially polarized Gilded Age — exacerbated by the Lincoln-sponsored myth of an equal start for both blacks and whites in the “race of life.” Political freedom, however necessary, rarely led to economic freedom for blacks. The era’s steamrolling free-market optimism did reinforce the assumption that the embodiment of true failure in America was the anonymous “complacent plodder.” America was quickly becoming a place that embraced men who succeeded and/or failed with the flamboyance of a P.T. Barnum, and scoffed at “honest” men who simply “get along.”

Up for reevaluation in Born Losers are long-forgotten sub-genres of American Lit: straight from the scrap-heap of US history come the “master plots” and “narratives” of credit-rating ledgers, and Gilded Age “begging letters.” If enduring influence on colloquial Yankee speech is to count for anything, then this judgmental jargon deserves its rightful due: where do you think expressions like “Good egg,” “A no. 1” and “Good for nothing” come from? In a capitalist system where “hard” money was scarce, credit gave wider access to the American Dream. But buying on credit also meant the possible loss of a “rateable” identity.

And what happens when millions become “third-rate” in the eyes of credit agencies? Enter the rampant Gilded Age phenomenon of “begging letters,” consisting of heartfelt appeals to the wealthy and powerful from the broken and unsuccessful. These desperate amateur writers attempt to polish up their tarnished identity as “losers” and sell their perceived qualities directly to rich folk. Sandage treats these missives with scholarly deference, concluding that “sentimental” capital was the only currency many of these failed men possessed, at a time when capitalist enterprise was becoming increasingly impersonal and unsentimental. And although we’re warned that these letters are clichéd and repetitious, that doesn’t stop Sandage from quoting them en masse.

So yes, Born Losers is exhaustively researched — almost to a fault. Occasionally, Sandage does peek out from under the protective armor of his facts and quotes, and allows his own critical voice to take a more aggressive role in shaping the text. There’s actually a detectable writing “style” here, and a refreshing smart-ass attitude crackling under the book’s scholarly veneer — a welcome change from the flat expository style of most self-consciously “academic” scribes. Nevertheless, it is the painstaking research that ultimately drives the book: bringing to light the plodders, the mediocre hucksters, and the luckless speculators that popular history has overlooked.

The book’s assessment of the 20th Century history of American Failure does, however, read like a cursory survey, confined to the Epilogue. There’s a quickie recap of how the American idea of failure has been reexamined through theater, folk music, rock and roll, and country music. There’s the predictable Bob-olatry practiced by most lefty academics — exalting Saint Dylan as the musical messiah of the downtrodden. And Sandage is only half-right about country music catering to the down-and-out. Today, the blockbuster country-pop revolution that Garth Brooks sparked is in full Bush-World flourish; Nashville has long forgotten the unpleasant side of working-class life that artists like Tammy Wynette and Merle Haggard once sang about.

Born Losersbeing primarily a historical study, doesn’t adequately explore the sociological landscape of post-Millennial success and failure. Who are the newest players in this game of capitalist identity management? Take expert self-promoters like corporate hatchet-man Jack Welch and upscale slumlord Donald Trump, for instance. They understand that failure in 2005 America is mostly about having no public attention paid to you. Taking their cue from Ben Franklin, these self-mythologizing blowhards style themselves as triumphant boot-strappers, constantly revising “Errata” and exaggerating their roles in the ongoing Great American Success Story. Never mind that Trump was born into wealth; never mind that The Donald’s unprofitable casinos have been repossessed by bond-holders; never mind that he repeatedly abuses bankruptcy laws to dodge financial responsibility. And far from being an innovative managerial guru, Welch was little more than a conformist company man — taking an already-profitable corporation and making it more profitable through the art of the Mass Layoff.

Don’t worry, though, Born Losers isn’t pushing some scary anti-capitalist message. Sandage simply wonders why we can’t heed Thoreau’s 19th Century pleas for more leisure and moderation in our mercantile society-gone-nuts. Moreover, he makes a final point that most wild-eyed American strivers would rather not ponder: In a social Darwinist free-market system where one’s identity is an either/or proposition, failure is as indispensable to the perpetuation of the American Dream as its more reputable cousin, success.