‘A New Way of Life’

Dale Carnegie returning to New York from Europe on the SS Normandie, 1938

An early edition of How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie—say, a copy from 1936, the year the book came out—is nothing special to look at. It has no bullet points, no triumphal photos of the author, no boldface chapter headings. Mostly it’s just plain text. From its appearance you might not guess the effect the book had upon the world, although a clue pops up in the title of the introduction by Lowell Thomas, a newsman and radio personality of the day. The title is “A Short-Cut to Distinction.” How to Win Friends is one of the most popular shortcuts to success, wealth, and happiness that has ever been proposed. To the charge that the book advocated the use of flattery to gain the objective of the title, Carnegie responded, “Great God Almighty!!!” and protested that he wasn’t talking about anything so base. Rather, he said, “I am talking about a new way of life.

The book went through seventeen editions in its first year and sold a million copies by 1939. It’s one of the best-selling nonfiction books in US history. Revised editions have brought the original more up to date. After Carnegie died, his widow, Dorothy, consulted on revisions, most recently in 1981. That edition, a paperback published by a division of Simon and Schuster, is the version of the book readily available today. The original How to Win Friends was addressed to men: “Remember that the man you are talking to is a hundred times more interested in himself and his wants and his problems than he is in you and your problems” becomes “Remember that the people you are talking to,” etc…. Gender-neutral fixes apply throughout the 1981 version and are barely noticeable.

Other changes, however, have a bizarre ring. Carnegie took many of his instructive parables from the political scene of his time, so there are, for example, detailed references to the Teapot Dome scandal, and one meets lead-in sentences like “A friend of mine was a guest at the White House for a weekend during the administration of Calvin Coolidge.” The 1981 edition keeps a large number of these old references while adding new ones likely to be more familiar to a modern reader, such as an inspirational story about the boyhood of Stevie Wonder. Odd as some of the new patches might seem, the appeal of the book has not waned. Check the latest Amazon listings; I just did, and How to Win Friends, cruising toward its first eighty years in print, comes up as Amazon’s #32 best-selling title.

A new biography, Self-Help Messiah: Dale Carnegie and Success in Modern America, by Steven Watts, gives a strong sense of the life’s momentum that propelled How to Win Friends so far. Watts teaches history…

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