self-help-messiahBiographile, November 21 2013


By Steven Watts
Other Press. 592pp. $29.95

Steven Watts’ Self-Help Messiah: Dale Carnegie and Success in Modern America is the first biography of Dale Carnegie, the self-help guru whose multimillion-copy-selling 1936 book How to Win Friends and Influence People remains one of the most-read and most influential books of the twentieth century. In his revealing biography, Watts looks behind the mask of the prophet of positive thinking to uncover his poor rural origins, his checkered professional career, and his complex personal life.

BIOGRAPHILE: You’ve previously written biographies of important cultural figures like Walt Disney and Henry Ford. What led you to Dale Carnegie? Did this project grow out of your previous work?

STEVEN WATTS: In part I was simply looking for a new subject in modern American culture after my last book. But in a more intellectual vein, I had always been struck by students’ reactions to Carnegie’s How to Win Friends when I taught it in various classes. Some hated it and some loved it, and the discussions were always lively. So I looked into Carnegie and discovered no biographies had been written about him. So the project seemed like a natural opportunity to write an interesting and informative book.

BIOG: As you were Carnegie’s first biographer, was there was a lot of detective work involved?

SW: After scouting around, I discovered there was an archive of material on Carnegie at the offices of Dale Carnegie and Associates on Long Island. The company agreed to open those sources to me — they were largely untapped — and I also ended up interviewing several members of Carnegie’s family, including his daughter, his granddaughter, and his son-in-law. So I was able to use a lot of new material in writing the life of this influential cultural figure.

BIOG: What particularly surprised you along the way?

SW: I was surprised to discover that Carnegie mainly saw himself as a teacher, a calling he pursued since he began to teach courses on public speaking in 1912. How to Win Friends, in fact, flowed directly out of the lesson plans and talks that evolved in the Carnegie Course over the previous twenty-five years, and he always considered his writing as secondary to his teaching. I was also surprised to uncover something previously unknown both to his family and his company: a long relationship with a married woman that produced a girl he believed to be his daughter. Even though he broke things off when he married in the mid-1940s, he continued to support and encourage the “daughter,” whom he loved dearly.

BIOG: It seems that Carnegie drew a great deal from his own life in developing his theories — although he was keenly interested in psychology, it was really his own experiences that gave him the basis for his teaching and his books. However, that also meant that he had difficulty reconciling his own life with his fame, and living up to people’s expectations.

SW: Carnegie’s own life was a rags-to-riches tale, as he rose from poverty in rural Missouri to great fame and influence. But it came only after he had cycled through a number of jobs and professions as an actor, a novelist, an entertainment impresario, and a journalist. After becoming successful and writing the book on how to create an attractive personality and develop human relations skills, he discovered that people expected a larger-than-life, charismatic figure when they saw him — when in fact he was a rather modest, soft-spoken Midwesterner. He worried about disappointing people. Carnegie also discovered that his principles of “make the other person feel important” in his famous book aroused controversy over the issue of sincerity. Critics suggested that he was really promoting a program of “flattery” as a way to soft-soap others and make them susceptible to your will. That fine line between genuine appreciation of others, and manipulating others through false praise, continues to bedevil his program.

BIOG: You give an intriguing analysis of his name change, for example; he seemed not to understand its significance, or the idea that it could be seen as insincere or manipulative.

SW: Carnegie’s name change in early adulthood — from “Carnagey” to “Carnegie” — did have a whiff of manipulation to it. While done for practical reasons, he claimed, it also seems in part to have been an attempt to associate himself with the famous industrialist, Andrew Carnegie.

BIOG: How do you feel about him now, having written the book?

SW: Having finished the book, I see Carnegie as neither good nor bad but as fascinatingly human, an individual with a great life story. But more importantly, I see him as a very influential figure in the shaping of modern American culture. His endeavors, both with his course and his books, created the foundation for modern notions of success in our complex bureaucratic society. Carnegie created the foundation for the plethora of self-help programs that have become central to the therapeutic culture that envelops us today.

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