Born Losers

In Born Losers, a comprehensive anatomy of failure in the United States, Scott A. Sandage focuses on the nineteenth century and on America’s move from an agrarian to an industrial society. He chronicles the painful adjustments this switch required, referring not only to the growth of such behemoths as Standard Oil and America’s railroads but also honing in on what this growth presaged for the masses caught in the intersection between small, independent enterprise and the corporate giants which made it difficult for small businessmen to maintain their identities and their financial integrity.

Sandage writes about a notably male chauvinist, patriarchal society in which men’s manhood depended on how well they provided for their families. Raised with the conviction that honesty, hard work, and reliability would assure financial independence and a modicum of success, hundreds of disillusioned businessmen were sucked into the vortex of an economic whirlpool which relentlessly drew them down. Such events as the financial panics of 1819, 1837, 1857, 1873, and 1893 brought about a reshaping of the American economy and resulted in widespread suicides by honorable men, many past middle-age, whose financial independence and ability to provide for their families suddenly evaporated.

Most of those who had no safety net on which to rely through the great depressions that recurred during the nineteenth century faced total ruin when circumstances destroyed the small businesses they depended on for their sustenance. The United States Bankruptcy Acts of 1800, 1841, and 1867 offered some respite for those who faced financial annihilation, but the very nature of bankruptcy ran counter to the spirit of independence and responsibility that had long been trademarks of reputable American businessmen. Society often equated financial failure with moral failure. Many ruined businessmen viewed suicide as preferable to bearing the stigma of filing for bankruptcy, which they considered a public admission of failure, both economic and moral.

Although most women in this era were stay-at-home wives and mothers, many of them were forced to exert their resourcefulness to find means of survival, resorting to such measures as growing their own vegetables, making clothing for themselves and their families, taking in boarders, and, as Sandage well illustrates, writing begging letters to the captains of industry. These letters, on which Sandage comments with admirable insight and sensitivity, exist in large numbers in the archives he explored in preparing this book. He devotes a great deal of time to discussing both the structure and the contents of such letters, using them essentially as case studies.

The letters are remarkably similar structurally. They usually began with an apology for intruding on the recipient, then proceed both to outline their cases and extol the virtues of their ruined spouses, and finally ask the recipient to give such spouses an opportunity for employment, which would, in their eyes, be of mutual benefit. Most of these letters reflected the pride and self-respect of those who sent them. Almost none directly request financial assistance. They almost uniformly ask only that the men on whose behalf they write be afforded opportunities to work.

Sandage identifies born losers as those who are misfits of the capitalist societies which nineteenth century industrialism spawned. Early in his book, he focuses on the funeral of Henry David Thoreau, whose eulogy is delivered by his friend and neighbor Ralph Waldo Emerson. Although Emerson respected Thoreau and valued his ideals, he had to admit that, judged by the prevailing measures of success in the United States during the nineteenth century, Thoreau was far from being successful. Emerson identified him as “the captain of a huckleberry-party” and went on to enumerate the pursuits that Thoreau tried but to which he did not give his continued attention: “teacher, surveyor, pencilmaker, housepainter, mason, farmer, gardener.” Thoreau’s interests were eclectic; captains of industry are often single-minded in their pursuits.

Obviously, such successes of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as John D. Rockefeller, J. P. Morgan, and Andrew Carnegie were judged in their own time by their material achievements more than by the sorts of contributions to...

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The Atlantic Monthly 295 (January/February, 2005): 159-160.

The Economist 374 (February 26, 2005): 34.

Esquire 143, no. 2 (February, 2005): 38.

Kirkus Reviews 72, no. 20 (October 15, 2004): 996-997.

Library Journal 129, no. 16 (October 1, 2004): 95-96.

National Journal 36, nos. 47/48 (November 20, 2004): 3549.

The New Republic 233, no. 6 (August 8, 2005): 32-35.

Publishers Weekly 251, no. 44 (November 1, 2004): 52.

The Washington Post Book World 35 (January 30, 2005): 12.