Deadbeat. Flunky. Flop. Ne’er-do-well. Sucker.
The U.S.A. may be a cocky, success-obsessed nation, but its citizens sure have come up with a whole heap of words for screwups. The underside of the American dream has always been American disappointment: the nagging feeling that you wasted your life, that you coulda been a contender, if only you’d pushed harder. “We imagine escaping the mad scramble, yet kick ourselves for lacking drive,” Scott A. Sandage writes in Born Losers: A History of Failure in America. “Low ambition offends Americans even more than low achievement.”
Born Losers is not exactly the broad history suggested by its subtitle. Instead, Carnegie Mellon prof Sandage dwells on the 19th century, when industrial capitalism cranked into overdrive and the ideal of the entrepreneurial, self-made man gripped the American imagination. That’s also when our contemporary definition of failure evolved from its more limited original meaning (to go broke in business) and came to signify something much more personal: a fatal deficiency of will. Same thing with loser, which mutated from a term describing a loss of property to an existential insult. As Sandage points out, the language of business began to seep out of the boardroom and into our souls.
Even nobodies leave a paper trail, and Born Losers rifles through diaries and financial records, piecing together an engaging tale of 19th-century America as seen from the bottom of the barrel. Peeking into long-forgotten bankruptcy cases, the author provides poignant glimpses of men ensnared in Bleak House-style webs of misery. Society had little sympathy for these ruined creatures, often honest men ambushed by hard times. The newly popular notion that anyone could prosper in America led people to blame those who didn’t. Failure came to be seen as a “moral sieve that trapped the loafer and passed the true man through.” Instead of stability and dedication to family and community, the new masculinity required velocity and thrust appropriate to the age of the locomotive, which is why dashing—with its aura of energy and drive—became such a compliment. The 19th-century media even buzzed about a generation of “go-ahead men,” real live action figures who embodied the reckless striving and acquisitiveness demanded by hyperactive capitalism. A bestselling 1884 success manual warned: “Better never to have been born than merely to exist and live a calm, plodding, listless life.”
This evolution from a community-oriented world to a cutthroat corporate marketplace led to what Sandage calls an “ethical disorientation” that continues to this day. This is the great lie embedded in American society since the period Sandage documents: that family values and voracious greed complement each other, when actually they’re radically incompatible.
One of Born Losers‘ most intriguing chapters concerns a pioneering attempt to map the new landscape of riches and ruin thrown up by the turmoil of nascent capitalism in mid-19th-century America. Founded by Lewis Tappan, an anti-slavery activist who hoped to bring moral accountability to the marketplace, the Mercantile Agency operated a kind of financial surveillance system. The agency classified people as being a good or bad risk in business dealings, using information provided by a network of local snitches who reported on the everyday behavior of their neighbors. The result was a compendium of intricate, often harshly judgmental narratives of ordinary people. Sandage lingers, fascinated, over entries like the one concerning a merchant who “has been on the sinking list all his life.” Expressions like bad egg, good-for-nothing, and second-rate originated in the credit lingo of the day. Of course, these potted histories often hid more complex stories, as with one man dismissed with the verdict: “never succeed[e]d at any[thin]g & probably never will.” In reality, this blurb described a burgeoning abolitionist who sold his plantation and slaves, then later dragged his family into poverty buying back those slaves in order to set them free. As Sandage notes, the two tales emphasize different things, but the outcome stays the same—financial ruin—and for the customers of the Mercantile Agency, prosperity was the sole measure of a man.
Born Losers sometimes gets lost in its raw material; like a bibliophile gone haywire in the archives, Sandage spends page after page wandering through financial records and letters sent to moguls by broke folk begging for work. But his knack for colorful and clear prose—and his love of period slang—enlivens what might otherwise be a drab narrative. The book’s main flaw may be its weak attempt to trace the legacy of 19th-century preoccupations into the present with a pell-mell, unsatisfying dash through the 20th century, touching on Willy Loman, Charlie Brown, Johnny Cash, and Beck. Ever since the Beats and the folk revival, misfits and drifters have become heroic figures for numerous Americans who see themselves as fugitives from a society that separates us all into boomers or busts.