Summer 2002

The Invention of Failure: An Interview with Scott A. Sandage

Falling short in America

Sina Najafi, David Serlin, and Scott A. Sandage

Failure, to paraphrase Wordsworth, is too much with us; every day seems to add yet another tale of bankruptcy, romantic loss, or personal tragedy, suggesting that failure, as a concept, is a fundamental part of what used to be called the human experience. But in his forthcoming book Born Losers: A History of Failure in America, Scott A. Sandage, professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University, argues that the notion of failure as something that defines one’s identity is a relatively recent invention with its roots in the entrepreneurial capitalism of nineteenth-century America.

Cabinet: Can you start by telling us the scope of your book?

Scott A. Sandage: The book is a cultural history of the idea of failure in American life from roughly Benjamin Franklin to Bob Dylan. They establish the dates of the book, but it is not really about famous people or the early setbacks of people who eventually succeeded. It is not about Thomas Edison or Ulysses S. Grant failing and later becoming successful. It is a book about ordinary people who throughout American history fell short of whatever the prevailing mark was in the period in which they lived.

One of the problems I had was answering the question, “Why had nobody written a book about failure before?”, at least not a book about real people who failed, rather than what sermons or short stories or novels or advice manuals say about failure. There had been an assumption that there is no source material, that, by definition, someone who failed miserably throughout his life would not have left a paper trail. This turned out to be a false assumption. One of the reasons is that failure has been such a ubiquitous part of the American experience that archives are full of people who have failed. For example, one of the best sources I have found was a cache of about five thousand letters that ordinary people wrote to John D. Rockefeller, Sr., starting in the 1870s, saying “Dear rich and famous man, here is my long, sad story. Please help me by (a) giving me a job (b) sending me some money (c) giving me advice on how to succeed, etc.”

Does the quantity of material remain consistent throughout the period that you analyze?

Yes and no. Yes, because I have been able to find enough information throughout the period. No, because part of the analysis in the book is the role that has been played by evolving narrative genres in describing the identity of failure. For example, prior to 1820 you didn’t have things like credit reports, police reports, school grades, personnel files, constituent mail, letters to millionaires, and so on. All of these are narrative genres that are invented at particular points in our history and each of them contributes something new to the ability of a person to describe his or her own identity.

A phrase that occurs repeatedly throughout the essays and novels of an author like Mark Twain is “the average man.” There is a scene in Huckleberry Finn where Twain says “the average man is a coward.” The idea of the average man can’t exist until the science of statistics becomes sufficiently well-known to a cross-section of the general public. The science of statistics dates back to the 1830s and 1840s, but it is the advent of sociology in the late nineteenth century—as well as ideas like credit reporting and movements like Social Darwinism—that represent the beginning of systems being invented to meet perceived needs to rank and classify people.

Credit reporting, for instance, is something that figures largely in the book. You know how you get offers in the mail to show you your credit report? Consumers get rated by TRW, and businesses by Dun & Bradstreet and other companies. This all starts in 1841, with a New York City business called the Mercantile Agency, which later turns into Dun & Bradstreet. The country is at that time still reeling from one of the first national economic crises—the Panic of 1837—and the Mercantile Agency offers a service to meet a need that did not previously exist. It helps you decide who is trustworthy in a situation in which you are now doing business with people you will never meet. The telegraph, the railroad, the steamboat—all these developments make it possible to transact business across great distances, and so the handshake and looking a man directly in the eyes and sizing him up is no longer possible.

The Agency comes into existence to meet the need to systemize trust. But for the first forty or fifty years, credit ratings are largely verbal. They are little stories. Only gradually do they begin to develop numerical, encrypted, or coded rating systems. So, if I am a silk wholesaler in New York City and I receive an order for five bolts of silk from a general storekeeper in Ohio, I want to know if he’s good for the money. I would go to the Mercantile Agency and they would have on file a little story about this person that had been provided by a covert operative in that person’s town.

The service had recruited what the founders called “local correspondents” in just about any location in the country where people were doing business across distances. The correspondent would send in reports every six months about businessmen in that town. These reports would be things like, “He’s a thriving businessman but the rumor is that his wife is about to divorce him and that’s going to cost him a lot of money, bring shame to his name, and it is inevitable that he will fail.” 

That is one of the major new forms of narrative that comes up in the nineteenth century because it is a way of keeping track of your career over a long term. The idea of moving from town to town when you fail and leaving your past behind becomes much more difficult when you have anonymous spies keeping track of you.

Much of the language that people use today to describe themselves or others as a failure derives from the language of business in general, and the language of credit reporting in particular. I think that is part of the puzzle of failure in America. Why have we as a culture embraced modes of identity where we measure our souls using business models? For example, the term “A Number 1” used to describe a person comes from credit rating. It means that this person’s financial assets, A, and moral character, 1, qualify him for the best rate of interest when he borrows money. Or if you call somebody second-rate or third-rate, that’s another way of describing what type of credit rating he has. If he’s first-rate, that is because he gets the first rate of credit, etc. If you’ve ever heard someone called “of no account,” or “good for nothing,” these are from the language of credit rating. Is he good for a thousand dollars to borrow or good for nothing? But in our culture, the phrase “good for nothing” has moved from a very specific, purportedly objective financial and numerical assessment to something that is much more encompassing in terms of what it says about a person’s identity.

How did ordinary people evaluate failure before the creation of these standards of failure?

In debate with public ways of measuring failure. My goal in a lot of the cases is to get as many competing narratives about the same person as I can find. I will have the credit report which is narrative, a diary if I can find one, a letter from that person’s wife or relative describing the person. There are various ways in which these historically specific narratives I mention start to multiply in the nineteenth century so that your identity is a competition amongst the various people who claim the right to describe you. Your identity is in some way a distillation of these narratives, and at various times one may win out. These narratives that we use to construct our identity come increasingly with rewards and punishments. If you are the sort of person who can tell this type of story about your life, you get this reward. If you are the sort of person who can tell another story, you get that punishment. Your life story can help or hurt you.

So in terms of how ordinary people respond, they become aware of the fact they are not the only person telling their story. A lot of times they contest them. The major part of what I do when I deal with the credit reporting is to look at libel cases filed by people who felt that they had been maligned by various credit agencies, which had reported that they were failures or were going to become failures. 

Credit rating was invented by a man named Lewis Tappan, who was also an abolitionist centrally involved in the Amistad case. Tappan was a silk wholesaler with his brother in New York City. They went bankrupt spectacularly in the Panic of 1837, and Lewis decided to get out of that business and do something else. It is ironic that an abolitionist created a new way of putting a price on a human head. 

The two major drivers of changing American attitudes toward failure in the long term have been, obviously, the growth of capitalism and, much less obviously, the emancipation of slaves. Prior to the Civil War, there were two categories of identity in American life: slaves and free people. After the Civil War, there are two categories of identity in American life: successes and failures. Obviously success and failure is much more of a continuum than slave or free. On the other hand, because it is a continuum and explained within the idea of meritocracy, it is much easier to blame or to make moral judgments about the deficiencies of someone who fails than it was to blame someone for being a slave.

What did failure mean before these changes?

Basically nothing, because the concept of failure as something that defines your whole identity is a new thing. In terms of language, it doesn’t exist at all before the Civil War: you will not find a sentence like “I feel like a failure” in American writing before 1860. And it is, strangely enough, the usual literary suspects who recognize the metaphoric value of business failure and begin to use it in ways that describe what the culture is doing with that metaphor, meaning that they begin to use it as a metaphor for personal failure—not because they agree with the metaphor but because they have recognized that the culture is moving toward taking business success or failure as being the thing that defines your soul. I’m thinking of people like Thoreau and Whitman, who writes the poem “To Those Who’ve Fail’d” in Leaves of Grass.

So American literature reflects these changes?

Absolutely. It isn’t something that I deal with directly but there are millions of short stories and novels in the pre-Civil War period that are beginning to deal with the fact of economic instability and how that effects individuals and families in their identities. And after the Civil War, you get much more of the stereotypical Horatio Alger rags-to-riches stories.

The first major American financial crisis was the Panic of 1819 and that was the first event that showed ordinary people in diverse geographic areas that some incomprehensible thing that happened on Wall Street could make a major change in their life. Now, of course, there had been hard times before that, but generally in relation to wars, crop failures, droughts, and other phenomena that were visible and could be understood. But in 1819 when the economy went belly up, it was invisible and incomprehensible. It was a sea change for Americans to begin to construct their identities in a society that was secularizing, on the one hand, and experiencing cyclical booms and busts that were of uncertain origin, on the other. So about 1820, you begin to get that kind of literature about bankruptcy and failure. But there’s a 180-degree shift in the way the word failure is used: from 1820 through the Civil War, or thereabouts, failure was used to describe people who met economic catastrophe, but the construction was, “I made a failure,” rather than, “I am a failure,” It was an event that could be discrete, without touching upon one’s moral and existential being.

So the first meaning of failure before the Civil War is bankruptcy. If you say, “He made a failure,” it means he’s a bankrupt businessman and, more specifically, it means somebody was too ambitious. He ran his credit up too far, he tried to expand their business too quickly, or he moved into a sideline business that was not the thing he knew the most about. If you ask an ordinary American today to describe a person who is a failure, they would say, “An underachiever who sort of ambles through life without a real plan and is stagnant.” And that’s a 180-degree shift from failure as a person who is an over-reacher and too ambitious to someone who is an underachiever, not ambitious enough.

And is the average person safe from this new rhetoric of failure?

No. People think of “averageness” as a form of failure. By the definition of failure as being an underachiever, you can live a relatively secure and happy life and still be a failure. The poster child for this is Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. If you took out a piece of paper and did a balance sheet of what Willy Loman has achieved in our meritocractic society, it tabulates as follows: He owns a home; he owns an automobile; he has modern appliances in his house; he has kept the same job for thirty-five years, including during the Depression; he has a wife; he has two handsome, strapping sons, one of whom is a football star and got a scholarship to college. You tell me. How is that failure? That is the American Dream. He has done everything he’s supposed to do and acquired everything that he’s supposed to acquire. And yet everybody—his wife, his children, his neighbor, his employer—knows that he’s a failure, not because he went bankrupt in business or because he was too ambitious, but because he’s stagnant and because there is a deficiency in his complete identity.

One of the questions I’ve brought to this book and that I think I have been least able to answer is, “Why do Americans still believe this notion of success and failure?” The American equation is that if you work hard, you will succeed. Well, we all know of people who succeed who didn’t work hard and we all know of people who worked very hard and don’t succeed. So, the equation is honored in the breach and it works rarely if at all, and yet we conduct our entire lives based on an unshakable faith that it really works. In the 1930s, there was a sociologist named William Miller who studied captains of industry and the statistic he produced was that of major American corporate CEOs, something like 3 percent came from what might loosely be called humble origins. The idea that people grow up in Spokane and make computers in their garages and become the richest man on earth is statistically invalid. It doesn’t happen often, but it is a really difficult myth for Americans to let go of and that continues to puzzle me. Letting go of it would mean letting go of the idea that you structure your soul based on entrepreneurial models and that regardless of what life calling you pursue, whether you’re a journalist or college professor or a businessman or a musician, you should always be investing in yourself, trying to reap profits, maximize potential—all of these business metaphors that we use to describe our personalities.

Is the rise of self-help literature in the mid-to late nineteenth century tied to this? Or is that different, because much of that material is not about getting ahead financially but about being a better person, being more morally upright?

The rags-to-riches novels are not about rags to riches. They’re usually about luck and pluck and perseverance and striving. So yes, there is a relationship to that and there also is a religious element to it. The nineteenth century is the century of secularization in America. It opens as a century in which the church and the local religious community are the primary community that people identify with, and it ends after urbanization and geographic mobility in a very different kind of country. There is an element of economic theory that uses Freud and Norman O. Brown, that looks at economics as a different form of coming to terms with death, of cheating death, if you will. Religion is one way of coming to terms with death and reassuring yourself that something good will happen when it finally does occur, and economics is another way. There is a real element in which when Americans talk about success and failure, they’re not only talking about freedom and slavery but also talking about life and death. Failure is a form of death. If you think about your life as a story, most of us assemble and carry our lives around with us by constantly revising the story that we understand ourselves through. Failure is when the story stops. Failure is not merely a cataclysm that adds to the plot of your life story but is something that stops your life cold because you lose a sense of your future.

It reminds us of Fitzgerald’s claim that there are no second acts in American lives.

One of the myths I wanted to debunk was that failure is a bump on the road to success, that there is going to be a second act. And I looked in the historical record for people who did not rebound. That is one of the reasons why I’m interested in the way in which failure means the story has stopped. What surprised me most in writing this book is how often the theme of death cropped up. Ultimately I decided to begin and end the book with two notable funerals: the book opens at the funeral of Henry David Thoreau in May 1862 where his best friend Ralph Waldo Emerson shocked some people in the church by giving a eulogy that pronounced Henry a failure, insofar as he did not live up to his potential. Emerson, who had been Thoreau’s professor at Harvard, said that Thoreau could have been one of the great men of his time—a scientist, a general, or a politician—but instead, in Emerson’s disappointed words, “he was the captain of a huckleberry party.” That meant he was a failure because he had these abilities that he did not use in the most traditional, profit-driven, entrepreneurial sense. Thoreau was happier picking berries.

The end of the book is the funeral of Willy Loman, where the play ends with the requiem where people stand around and ask “Did Willy have the right dream or the wrong dream?” So Thoreau is the failure of wasted potential in Emerson’s eyes, and Loman is the failure of mediocrity who fails by virtue of being average. That’s why my students are scandalized if I give them a “C”: it means they are merely average. I think there is a line in the film American Beauty about how horrible it would be to be merely ordinary. And Thoreau represented for many Americans a different way—that you can choose not to organize your soul entrepreneurially and still achieve great things.

Are there other arenas that play a part in defining our notions of failure?

Yes, one of the obvious ones is athletics. There are winners and losers not just on Wall Street but also in every school gym class. There is also sexuality, and so on.

Do women play a role in nineteenth-century business and in your book?

By and large, there were women in the credit reports. Women were much more entrepreneurial than we think they were, but from the first part of the nineteenth century maybe up until the 1870s, failure is very clearly a discourse that describes things that happen to men, specifically to white middle-class men because those are people on whom expectations are placed. You can’t fail unless someone expects you to succeed. Women, African-Americans, and working class men are not expected to improve or succeed. But by the end of the nineteenth century, you begin to see newspaper articles and discussions in other ways of women as failures, blacks as failures. To a great degree, those discussions import the business analogy.

Does your book address current events?

The last chapter of my book, which is a breezy sweep through the twentieth century, raises a couple of issues. One is the Columbine phenomenon. I was asked to speak at several conventions of high-school principals after Columbine. I didn’t think my research would be operationally useful to people in those difficult situations, but they were very grateful for any larger framework that could give them an understanding of where the grammars of stigma come from. The most chilling thing I’ve read in maybe the last ten years was a quotation in the New York Times in the first days after the shootings where a young woman who was a survivor said “Everybody knew those guys were losers. In this school, people wear Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle, or The Gap.” The second most sickening thing I’ve read was in the wake of September 11 and prompted me to go back and add something to the conclusion of my book, and that was the discussion of how to divide payments to the families. The purportedly objective mathematical formula that uses age and “future earnings” potential and comes up with one person on the 93rd floor being eligible for six hundred thousand dollars and another dead person on the ninety-third floor being eligible for much less is an example of a society that not only has its priorities out of whack but a society that is really in thrall to a black-and-white notion of success and failure. There will be no situation that Americans will confront that they won’t hammer into that box of success and failure.

In 2010, Whitechapel Gallery reprinted “The Invention of Failure” in Failure, a book in its Documents of Contemporary Art series.

Scott Sandage is associate professor in the Department of History at Carnegie Mellon University. His book Forgotten Men: Failure in American Culture, 1819-1893 is forthcoming from Harvard University Press.

Sina Najafi is editor-in-chief of Cabinet magazine.

David Serlin is an editor and columnist for Cabinet. He is the co-editor of Artificial Parts, Practical Lives: Modern Histories of Prosthetics (NYU Press, 2002).

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