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 at the University of Missouri, and perhaps a mid-country perspective helps in his canny choice of subjects. His other biographies have been of Henry Ford, Walt Disney, and Hugh Hefner.
One can even imagine that the Hefner biography (Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream, 2008) led Watts to Carnegie. Both Hefner and Carnegie had deep midwestern roots, both came from devout Methodist families, and the mothers of both of them would have been happy if they had become missionaries. But Hefner grew up playing in his room in a Chicago suburb and basically never left, while the Carnageys (as the family spelled the name) were hardscrabble farmers in northwestern Missouri. Dale, born in 1888, belonged to a generation in which many young folks grew weary of hauling manure and chopping wood and escaped the farm as soon as possible. Carnegie later wrote, “One of my earliest memories is watching the floodwaters of the 102 River rolling over our corn and hayfields.” On the way back from a fruitless meeting with bankers in town one day, Carnegie’s father stopped at the bridge over the 102 River and considered jumping in. One of Carnegie’s chief accomplishments was to give economically struggling men encouragement against despair.
His mother, Amanda Harbison Carnagey, kept the family going (there was also an older son, Clifton). “Neither floods nor debts nor disaster could suppress her happy, radiant, and victorious spirit,” Carnegie recalled. She participated in church events near their home and out of state and became a lay preacher who could “speak as well as any man.” When their younger son was sixteen the family moved to Warrensburg, home of the State Normal School, which offered free tuition. There Carnegie attended college classes in the shabby clothes his family could provide and suffered from feelings of inferiority. Unable to afford the boarding costs, he rode a horse to school in the morning and back home at night.
Public speaking, after his mother’s example and inspired by her coaching, saved him. Amanda preferred naturalness of delivery and simplicity of content, following new theories that rejected the fanciness and melodrama of nineteenth-century oratory. With this more straightforward style he won declamatory and debating prizes at the Normal School; his poverty receded as a problem, and his social life improved. He would say later, with Missouri modesty, “The only thing that God endowed me with was a little ability to shoot off my mouth.”
When he graduated he used this gift to make his living as a salesman, beginning at one of the toughest jobs, probably, in the country—selling correspondence school courses to farmers on the western Nebraska plains in the middle of a drought. After a day of that he sometimes threw himself on his hotel bed and sobbed. Switching to a sales route for Armour Meats in the Dakotas, he soon did better and began to make enough money that he could send some home. In the summer of 1909 he wrote his mother, “I stood 6th out of the 112 route salesmen in pure lard last month.”
Like other men with country backgrounds, Carnegie took a scattershot approach to his advancement. Quitting Armour, he went to New York City in 1911 to become an actor; that city would be his home, with some interruptions, from then on. He was a slight, trim, natty, big-eared man, bespectacled and bow-tied like Harry Truman. He did not get a lot of parts, though for a summer he toured with a traveling production. Writing attracted him and he enrolled in courses in composition and fiction at Columbia and NYU. As a freelance writer for magazines, he published articles on personalities whose lives he believed illustrated valuable lessons. Briefly he served in the army; for a while he sold Packard cars and trucks. For part of the 1920s he lived an expatriate life in Europe and, as an assistant to Lowell Thomas, directed popular presentations about T.E. Lawrence that started the “Lawrence of Arabia” craze. He married a divorced woman named Lolita Baucaire, wrote a novel, and was stunned when he was told how bad it was.
In 1925 he changed his name from Carnagey. That name’s accent fell on the second syllable, and (as Watts speculates) the “nay” might have seemed too negative-sounding; also, his new name would call to mind the great industrialist, who accented the first syllable, and whom it might be an asset to be associated with subliminally.
Through his wanderings Carnegie remained active in public speaking. In New York City he began to teach a course in it at a YMCA on 125th Street. The course was so popular that he expanded it to other venues and published short books to go along with it. As an essential base for progress the course reinforced the students’ self-confidence. He read widely among contemporary authors of the school known as New Thought, which taught that mental force and positive thinking would bring happiness and financial gain. An important substrate to his ideas was the philosophical and psychological writings of William James, whom Carnegie would often cite in his own work. James is to be blamed for the interesting but unproven assertion that we use only 10 percent of our brains. The wide field for self-improvement that Carnegie laid out depended a lot on this postulate.
By the time the Depression hit, his public speaking classes had expanded to other cities and he had hired many additional instructors. The Dale Carnegie Course in Effective Speaking and Influencing Men in Business found new students among the multitudes whom the Depression had put out of work; the course shifted emphasis to play up the general improvement of its students’ morale. To its precepts on public speaking Carnegie added motivational exercises whereby students conquered their fear of standing in front of others. “Do the Thing You Fear to Do” became a motto. The course also taught the students how to get other people to like them. Key to this was personality—the development of charisma, and an attentiveness to the mood and wants of the people one was addressing. A tenet of the Carnegie philosophy, often repeated: “It is the individual who is not interested in his fellow men who has the greatest difficulties in life.”
In 1934 a young Simon and Schuster editor named Leon Shimkin met Carnegie at a gathering of junior executives who wanted to learn about his methods. Shimkin signed up for the class, loved it, and suggested that Carnegie do a book based on his latest techniques. Carnegie resisted but Shimkin said that he would just have a stenographer record some of Carnegie’s lectures and type them up. To this Carnegie agreed, and in time he and the editor put together a manuscript. “I didn’t really write How to Win Friends. I collected it,” Carnegie recalled. The book’s original title was How to Make Friends and Influence People, but the designers said they couldn’t get all that on the dust jacket. Carnegie suggested changing “Make” to “Win,” and it fit, establishing a precedent for the use of that important blockbuster-title word. The book came out in November of 1936, and sold 70,000 copies in its first three weeks—“to my utter amazement,” Carnegie said.
The central thesis of Watts’s biography is that How to Win Friends both caused and signified a huge change in American life. First, by giving people a way to adjust themselves as individuals to the difficulties of the Depression, it saved the American cult of individuality; that is, by offering people a way to reimagine themselves as more positive-thinking and compliant participants in the economy, it forestalled the kind of collective response that changed politics so drastically elsewhere.
Second, and more important, Watts says, How to Win Friends marked the demotion of certain long-respected virtues. By its teachings, character gave way to personality, self-control to self-fulfillment, industry and thrift to skill at handling people. Carnegie rejected the idea that “hard work alone is the magic key that will unlock the door to our desires.” Instead, Watts says:
[His] engineering of the self constructed a model of modern individualism composed entirely of serial images, with no sturdy commitments or beliefs, no firm moral standards, no authentic and rooted core of self. It consisted only of a pliable personality eager to please others and to advance socially and economically.
Compared to inspirational volumes of earlier times—to John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, say, a commonplace in many Protestant homes, with its heroic victims of papist wickedness making stoical remarks as they burned at the stake—How to Win Friends was like a handbook for courtiers. “Always make the other person feel important,” “Let the other man do a great deal of the talking,” “Get the other person saying ‘yes, yes’ immediately,” and “Let the other fellow feel that the idea is his” were prominent Carnegie rules. A critic in The Nation said that Carnegie “has given us the best outline of the science of tail-wagging and hand-licking ever written.” But the critics, Carnegie maintained, did not see: “I am talking about a new way of life.”
Over and over Watts repeats that How to Win Friends contributed to a culture-wide shift away from the Victorian tradition and its standards of morality. This use of the Victorian tradition to stand for the “before” part of the Carnegie story may be a holdover from Watts’s biography of Hefner, in which he could say that Hefner rebelled against Victorian standards, and most readers would comprehend what was meant, just from common knowledge. But to say that Carnegie undid the Victorian tradition with How to Win Friends overlooks what was going on in the Protestant faith in America during Carnegie’s lifetime.
Simply put, the Protestant movement in America had run up a blind canyon. Protestantism, subdivided and amorphous as it was, had been based to some extent on protesting and opposing things, and the newness of saying “no” wears off after a while. Saying “no” to slavery reenergized many of the faithful, but once slavery was abolished, what worthy target of their “no” remained? Alcohol? Saying “no” to alcohol by the enactment of Prohibition was the biggest mistake the Protestant establishment ever made.
Many Protestant small towns of Carnegie’s youth and young manhood were awful—xenophobic, bigoted, culturally barren, and dry (i.e., not wet). To the young people who fled the farms were added the multitudes running from the small towns and bad-mouthing them after they left. At a time of Protestantism’s ossification and general loss of empathy, perhaps How to Win Friends could be viewed, alternatively, as a spiritual getting back to the basics: loving your neighbor, not criticizing the mote in your neighbor’s eye, giving the gentle reply that turns away anger, living in respectfulness and harmony. When Carnegie invoked the “new way of life” he claimed to be offering, maybe that was what he had in mind.
The modern self-help movement, of which Carnegie was a principal founder, threw religious faith into confusion. Watts points out that the model of therapeutic self-help construed the journey from victimization to self-esteem as “the central drama of life,” and he adds:
In 1993, a perplexed Christianity Today noted that a powerful “therapeutic revolution” had transformed modern Protestantism: “Almost without anyone paying attention, Christian psychology has moved to the center of evangelicalism.”
Now the focus was not on sin and redemption but on sickness and healing; authority and punishment were out, identity and (always) self-esteem were in. As Carnegie wrote in How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, his 1948 follow-up to How to Win Friends, “You are something new in this world. Be glad of it.” Money, in this worldview, was highly desirable, not an obstacle to justification. Wealthy men turn up often in his writings as exemplars of the true and the good; the wise actions of Charles Schwab, and his million-dollar-a-year-salary as the president of US Steel, are often invoked. Smile, smile—even when you don’t feel like it, says Carnegie. There is not a speck of sternness or austerity in his cosmology.
For a sign of how far America has traveled along the self-help path, Watts refers to the appearance of Oprah Winfrey as master of ceremonies at the memorial event at Yankee Stadium twelve days after the September 11 attacks. In the not-recent past, he says, the circumstances would have called for a political or religious leader to step forward. Instead, the “talk-show host and self-help guru whose empathetic, inspiring, and charismatic style had…made her the most popular woman in the country” spoke of healing, coming together, and creating deeper meaning from tragedy. Watts concludes that Oprah’s ascendance at that important American moment was the legacy of Dale Carnegie.
Naturally Carnegie’s writing provided a great target for parody. The earliest editions of How to Win Friends had barely left the presses before a writer named Irving Tressler published How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, a rather dogged effort that followed the original almost line for line. By the time Carnegie produced his best seller he had taken some knocks and knew a bit about the world, and his view of human nature could be unromantic to the point of cynicism. In his chapter about how to be a good conversationalist, he describes drawing out a woman at a party by asking her about her travels. One question from him and she was off: “She didn’t want to hear me talk about my travels. All she wanted was an interested listener, so she could expand her ego and tell about where she had been.”
The idea that people are narrow and selfish recurs throughout his work and often seems to beg for reorchestration in a mocking key. The openness to others that he advocates sometimes devolves into manipulation; a suspicion that everybody’s got an angle is hard to avoid, and his overall message sometimes comes across in two different ways: hopeful, as intended, and deeply jaundiced at the same time. Take, for example, the opening to his chapter “Letters That Produced Miraculous Results”:
I’ll bet I know what you are thinking now. You are probably saying to yourself something like this: “‘Letters that produced miraculous results!’ Absurd! Smacks of patent-medicine advertising!” If you are thinking that, I don’t blame you. I would probably have thought that myself…
As I read the passage I kept hearing lines from David Mamet’s play Glengarry Glen Ross, one of the great un-Carnegie works of our time. Richard Roma, the fierce and sleazy real estate salesman, has homed in on a prospect in a Chinese restaurant, and after a long and hilariously jaded philosophical monologue he asks, “What are you drinking?” “Gimlet,” the prospect replies.
Roma: Well, let’s have a couple more. My name is Richard Roma, what’s yours?
Lingk: Lingk. James Lingk.
Roma: James. I’m glad to meet you. (They shake hands.) I’m glad to meet you, James. (Pause.) I want to show you something. (Pause.) It might mean nothing to you…and it might not. I don’t know. I don’t know anymore. (Pause. He takes out a small map and spreads it on a table.) What is that? Florida. Glengarry Highlands. Florida. “Florida. Bullshit.” And maybe that’s true; and that’s what I said: but look here: what is this? This is a piece of land. Listen to what I’m going to tell you now…
Roma’s repetition of the word “James” is the most chilling and cynical of rhymes. Another Carnegie maxim was “Remember that a man’s name is to him the sweetest and most important sound in the English language.”
Carnegie himself did not come off as a man working the angles. He possessed a candid, sunny disposition and led a useful and mostly blameless life. His marriage to Lolita Baucaire did not work out; she was ashamed of his unsophisticated style and wanted to reform him too much, he said. The two separated after a few years and divorced after a decade. For a while Carnegie had a close friendship with a married woman who bore a child that he believed was his and treated accordingly, sending the girl presents and contributing to her schooling. In 1943 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, he met a young woman named Dorothy Vanderpool and they soon married. Dorothy had a lot to do with the continued success of his courses in public speaking and management, to which she added programs designed for women. In 1951, when Carnegie was sixty-three, he and Dorothy had a daughter, Donna Dale.
He was one of those rich people who use their money not to ascend in society but to deepen the comforts of their original middle-class lives. Before the success of How to Win Friends he had bought a house in Forest Hills, Queens, and he lived in it and wrote there and worked in its backyard garden for the rest of his life. Among his few indulgences was a set of dinosaur footprints that he bought from the American Museum of Natural History and installed in his yard. By the time he died in the house, in November 1955, his books and his courses had spread his teachings around the world.
Watts mentions that Carnegie’s address was 27 Wendover Road. I wrote the address on a piece of paper and hung onto it, and one day when I happened to be in the area I drove by to look at the house. It’s of beige stucco in a Mediterranean style with a red tile roof and it occupies a geographic high point in what is now a gated community (though I saw no gates) called Forest Hills Gardens. A young woman in a sleeveless dress was standing on the front stoop as I walked up. When I asked about Carnegie she went inside and a whole family issued forth. I had interrupted Sunday dinner, but they were used to people coming by to ask about the famous man, and happy to talk. A Carnegie admirer from Russia had been there just recently, they said. The family’s father, a dark-complected man with thick black-and-gray hair, told me all about the renovation work he had done to put the house back to what it looked like in Carnegie’s day. The dinosaur footprints were gone, nobody knew where.
I asked if any of them had read How to Win Friends. A lanky young man named Joe spoke up. “I did, and it changed my life,” he said. “I can tell you, it was a special experience to read the book in the same house where he wrote it. I read it the way he says you should read it, going over it a lot and writing stuff down. There’s one set of rules I almost memorized. I have them right here—”
He took out his wallet and produced a piece of white, lined notebook paper folded four times, to wallet size. Carefully he opened it. In neat black ballpoint printing he had copied “SIX WAYS TO MAKE PEOPLE LIKE YOU” (evidently from the 1981 paperback). Among the rules, I saw:
PRINCIPLE 3: Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.
“I always try to follow these rules, and I have the list with me wherever I go,” Joe said. He refolded the paper just as carefully and put it back in his wallet, next to his Metrocard.