The 100 best nonfiction books: No 41 – How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie (1936)
he selling of the American self, and its dream of a better future, began with the Declaration of Independence and founding father Benjamin Franklin, who once observed that “God helps them that help themselves”. Selling and salesmanship pervade American life and literature: Sister Carrie (Theodore Dreiser), Babbitt (Sinclair Lewis), The Iceman Cometh (Eugene O’Neill), Death of a Salesman (Arthur Miller), and Glengarry Glen Ross (David Mamet).
Exactly 80 years after How to Win Friends first appeared, it comes as no surprise to find a distorted, and sickeningly corrupt, version of Dale Carnegie’s homespun and inspirational self-help manual flourishing in the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, bestselling author of The Art of the Deal. Trump, indeed, continues actively to extol a later Carnegie fan (Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking) for his contribution to the American way of life. Whatever the outcome of Tuesday 8 November, there’s no doubt that the ecstatic selling of American greatness will remain part of the national psychodrama for years to come.
Trump’s diehard supporters are an apt reminder that, for many Americans, the pursuit of happiness is unsatisfying, success painfully elusive, and failure shameful and/or infuriating. The hunger for a better future remains a constant feature of the American sociopolitical landscape. In the depths of the Great Depression, it was this desperate need that Carnegie addressed in How to Win Friends and Influence People. Carnegie’s message was to inspire go-getting Americans to look on the bright side, and sell themselves better. By the time of Carnegie’s death in 1955, more than 5m copies had been sold, the book had been translated into more than 30 languages, and its title had passed into the language. Today, my paperback reprint from Vermilion (an imprint of Random House UK) boasts “over 16m copies sold”. As Jay Parini, a devout student of Carnegie’s work, has noted: between 1989, when Soviet communism failed and 1997, How to Win Friends went through no fewer than 68 editions in a Russian translation. Ideas of success usually make for a bestseller.
Carnegie himself, born in 1888, the same year as TS Eliot, embodied the American idea of self- or re-invention. He grew up the son of a failed Missouri farmer named Carnagey. Ambitious young Dale changed the spelling of his name more closely to associate himself with the great steel baron, Andrew Carnegie, a late 19th-century household name, and embarked on a career as a salesman while also attempting to make a future in the theatre as an actor, auditioning successfully for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Theatre life was hard. It was at this stage, he wrote, that “the dreams I had nourished back in my college days turned into nightmares”.
But he didn’t give up, and it was from this pit of despair and disappointment that he conceived the idea of giving courses in public speaking. Paraphrasing RW Emerson, a deeply influential American we shall meet later, he would say, “Do the thing that you fear to do, and the death of fear is absolutely certain.” By 1916, he was in a position to rent Carnegie Hall and lecture to full houses about his self-help techniques. His first book, Public Speaking: A Practical Course for Business Men, followed in 1926, and led inexorably through his growing stateswide audience to How to Win Friends.
The key to this new iteration of his optimistic message was its 12 principles (which ranged from No 1, “The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it”, to No 12, “Throw down a challenge”, via No 6, “Let the other person do a great deal of the talking”). Each principle was deftly illustrated by Carnegie’s well-chosen examples of influential and successful Americans in action.
Carnegie left nothing to chance. To convince his readers of his wisdom, he went to the top of American society in the 1930s. “I personally interviewed scores of successful people,” he writes, “some of them world- famous inventors like Marconi and Edison; political leaders like Franklin D Roosevelt … movie stars like Clark Gable and Mary Pickford … and tried to discover the techniques they used in human relations.” He saw himself as an enabler, quoting Herbert Spencer: “The great aim of education is not knowledge but action.” This, he declared, was “an action book”.
As Donald Trump knows only too well, to hook the uncommitted, any good salesman’s pitch must subtly invite the buyer to risk leaving his or her comfort zone, and take a chance. Carnegie was not afraid to connect his message to new ideas. Early on in his pitch for a mass audience, Carnegie mixed a simple American credo with radical European thought. He writes: “Sigmund Freud said that everything you and I do springs from two motives: the sex urge and the desire to be great.”
Carnegie also traded in folksy wisdom, in the manner of his idol, Abraham Lincoln. His first chapter, If You Want to Gather Honey, Don’t Kick Over the Beehive, encourages a positive, warm and optimistic attitude in dealings with others. He argues against attacking or criticising people. That will only make them aggressive towards you. After that, successive chapters deal with: how to get people to act as you want them to; how to make people like you; how to convince people of your arguments; and finally, how to be a Leader (“Making People Glad to Do What You Want”). All this was packaged into Carnegie’s systematic method, an important key to his popular success.
The measure of Carnegie’s extraordinary achievement can be seen in his many imitators. The most immediate was Norman Vincent Peale whose keynote sentence could have been written by Carnegie: “If you feel that you are defeated and have lost confidence in your ability to win, sit down, take a piece of paper and make a list, not of the factors that are against you, but of those that are for you.”
Unlike Carnegie, Peale was that now familiar American figure: a charismatic preacher trading in a crude, faith-based optimism. The officiating priest at the Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan for more than half a century, Peale first began to promote “positive thinking” on the radio with a programme entitled The Art of Living. The latest edition of The Power of Positive Thinking declares: “This Book Could Change Your Life”, and specifically offers to enable “everyone to enjoy confidence, success and joy”. Here, in about 300 pages, is a succinct expression of the American Dream in its purest form. From the outset, like Carnegie, Peale identifies squarely with the Common Man. His book, he declares, “was written for the plain people of this world, of whom certainly I am one”. With a sly allusion to Abraham Lincoln’s origins – a straight lift from Carnegie – he then makes a classic assertion of white American solidarity: “I was born and reared in humble midwestern circumstances in a dedicated Christian home. The everyday people of this land are my own kind whom I know and love and believe in with great faith.” Then follows Peale’s kicker: “When any one of them lets God have charge of his life the power and glory are amazingly demonstrated.”
What Peale offered was not merely spiritual counselling (over the years, plenty of other preachers had already done that), but “a system of simple procedures” that would generate untold “peace of mind, improved health and a never-ceasing flow of energy”. Extolling the common sense of his system, he goes on: “[This book] makes no pretence to literary excellence, nor does it seek to demonstrate any unusual scholarship on my part. This is simply a practical, direct-action, personal improvement manual.”
After Peale, the other American titles that owe a huge debt to Carnegie include: The One Minute Manager by Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson (1982); The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R Covey (1989); and Become a Better You: 7 Keys to Improving Your Life Every Day by Joel Osteen (2007). From these popular bestsellers, bought by people who probably possess almost no other books, it is only a short step to Trump’s “Make America Great Again”.