Saturday, February 12, 2005


You May Already Be A Loser!

The Boston Globe reviews Scott Sandage's Born Losers: A History of Failure in America. And as any Banvard's Folly readers might guess, I'm already halfway to the bookstore to get a copy:

Sandage, a history professor at Carnegie Mellon University, has centered his book in an extensive documentation of how individual Americans failed in business through the 19th century, and what such failure meant to them, in an era when success went from being an individual affair to a national and social ethic.

...At the heart of the book, [are] the reports ["red books"] of agents of the early credit bureaus. The pioneer was the Mercantile Agency, founded in 1841 by Lewis Tappan, a prominent abolitionist and a founder of Oberlin College.... It came to use some 2,000 correspondents -- young Abraham Lincoln was one -- men of some prominence in their communities and with knowledge, presumably, of their neighbors. Their comments went beyond the subjects' commercial activities; they included personal gossip, moral assessments, and the like. One merchant's adulteries and a prospective divorce action by his wife were reported; of another firm, the comment read: ''The whole lot of the 'W[eatherby]s' are Bad Eggs." ''Tight as the bark on a black gum," went another, presumably laudatory.... The abolitionist William Henry Brisbane, who courted ruin by buying slaves and freeing them, is summed up in an agency report: ''never succeeded at anything." ''If red books did not tell the whole story," Sandage comments, ''they told stories that would sell."

I've come across some of these credit reports in my own meanderings through 19th century history, and they make for fascinating reading -- and by focusing upon them, I think Sandage is really onto something as a social historian. From the mid-19th century onwards, the weight of failure has grown rather heavier. Think about it: it used to be that, no matter how disreputable or broke you were, if you simply moved to a new town or a new state you could start over again. And now? A call to Equifax or a single search on Google...

Incidentally, there's a interview with Sandage in the "Failure" issue (#7, Summer 2002) by the fine folks at Cabinet magazine, which itself was just profiled this week in a much-deserved New York Times piece.

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