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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 904

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This is the grave of Dale Carnegie.

One of the most shameless grifters in American history, Carnegie was born Dale Carnagey in Maryville, Missouri in 1888. He changed the spelling of his name in 1922 to sell more books and to honor his hero, Andrew Carnegie. This would say a lot about the guy. The family were farmers, mostly. He worked on that farm and then went to school for the day. He got really into debate (the scourge of education). He graduated from high school in 1906 and then went to the state’s normal school, what today is the University of Central Missouri, finishing a two year program there in 1908. But he didn’t go into teaching. Instead, he became a salesman, selling correspondence courses to farmers and then onto working for the meat conglomerate Armour. Based in Omaha, he traveled around the region and became the firm’s top salesman.

Well, selling people largely useless stuff and very useless ideas was Carnegie’s special skill. He decided to make a go of it on his own in 1911. He actually trained as an actor in New York at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, which did not lead to a career in acting but certainly helped his showboating salesmanship. Working for the YMCA in New York, he began to develop his trade of teaching people to speak in public, overcoming their fears of doing so. This in itself was a useful skill that more people need. But what made Carnegie different is that he wasn’t satisfied with providing people a useful skill. Instead, he saw himself as a prophet of self-confidence. He believed he was uniquely equipped to provide Americans with the needed self-confidence for success, which was of course defined as financial success. Thus, Carnegie was on the front lines of a more universalist Gospel of Wealth that came to light in the early 20th century. The earlier editions of the Gospel of Wealth were about Andrew Carnegie and the like. This was how to democratize wealth. And if there’s one things Americans want to hear, it’s get rich quick schemes and self-help books on how to do so. I love getting up on airplanes and peaking at what people are reading. So much of it is this self-help crap, second only to right-wing religious tracts. What a country. Carnegie is the John the Baptist of this stuff.

Interestingly, Carnegie was a conscientious objector in World War I. He also got out of fighting because he was missing a chunk of a finger, presumably from his farm childhood though that’s conjecture. In any case, this is perhaps the most interesting about the guy. By this time, he was already getting super rich off his lectures and books. His first book was 1915’s The Art of Public Speaking. The next year, he was selling out Carnegie Hall for lectures, which started him down the path of changing the spelling of his name. He published a whole bunch of other books pushing his junk, leading to what people remember him for–the 1936 book How to Win Friends and Influence People. Probably the single most influential self-help book of all time, amazingly this is still read today.

How to Win Friends and Influence People was the Bible of self-help books. By this time, Carnegie had his shtick down to a science. First, you write it for people who don’t like words that have more than two syllables. Second, you have lots and lots of lists. People talk about the listsicling of modern culture, but this goes back a long ways and Carnegie was an early master of it. His book started with a list of “Twelve Things This Book Will Do For You” right on the first page. This included such pablum as “Increase your popularity,” “Enable you to win new clients, new customers,” and, of course, “Increase your earning power.” Then the book broke down each of its strategies into easily numbered lists-three “Fundamental Techniques of Handling People,” “Six Ways to Make People Like You,” “Twelve Ways to Win People to Your Way of Thinking,” this sort of shit. This was certainly not the first self-help book, nor did Carnegie create the genre. But again, this was the John the Baptist vision of the Gospel of Wealth, the real prophet who could prepare the way for massive wealth.

Of course, this meant millions of dollars into Dale Carnegie’s pocket. He himself was the grand example of his own prophecy, the grifter’s snakeoil words all the way up to the right-wing evangelical and Trumpist thieves of the present. “You Can Be Like Me Except You Really Can’t” has been Donald Trump’s selling point from the 1980s onward. How to Win Friends and Influence People stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for two full years, selling 250,000 copies in its first three months. If you can imagine the one person who would despise this book and take to the pen to do so, it should be Sinclair Lewis. He did his work to debunk this stuff, writing that the book tells you to “smile and bob and pretend to be interested in other people’s hobbies precisely so that you may screw things out of them,” but no one cares what fancy writers have to say when readers are determined that if they can just read this one book they can get rich and tell everyone else what to do.

Among those who are deeply influenced by Carnegie is Warren Buffett, who still has his Carnegie Course diploma on his office wall today. Among others influenced by Carnegie was Charles Manson, who said he learned how to manipulate women into killing people by reading How to Win Friends and Influence People. Seems right. Of course, he followed up his most famous book with many more, creating a factory of self-help trash. That includes 1937’s Five Minute Biographies, evidently so you can pretend you know about things without doing the work to do so. He had been interested in popularizing history and in fact had written a little Lincoln biography in 1932 that created a Lincoln who had the same beliefs in self-help and bootstrapism as Carnegie. Shocking how that works. At least some early copies of this Lincoln book were bound using the skin of dead Black men. Not very Lincoln.

Carnegie ended up buying a gigantic mansion in Forest Hills, Queens, running his empire from New York. He married and divorced and then several years later married his secretary. He died in 1955 of Hodgkin’s Disease, at the age of 66.

Carnegie’s bullshit remains tremendously popular in Mexico today. My wife reports having several people talk to her about this brilliant man when she’s down there.

Dale Carnegie is buried in Belton Cemetery, Belton, Missouri.

If you would like this series to visit other purveyors of self-help crap, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Stephen Covey is in Millcreek, Utah and M. Scott Peck is in Pawling, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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