FOR MANY years, I taught Dale Carnegie’s famous book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People” (1936) in my undergraduate courses as a splendid example of modern self-help writing. Carnegie appeared as the 20th-century counterpart of Benjamin Franklin and Horatio Alger, a popular author whose recipe for achievement and advancement was tremendously popular.
My students would read the book and almost always engage in spirited, contentious debates about its merits as a self-help text. Some loved it, others hated it, but almost all seemed to recognize that it spoke to something fundamental (for good or bad) in modern American values.
Yet it became clear that we knew little about the man himself, so I decided to write a biography of this important figure. What emerged was an engaging story: rags to riches, great failures and great success, and a fascinating, secret personal life.
Dale Carnegie, born into a poor Missouri farm family in the late 1800s, became a tremendously significant influence on modern culture. As a teacher, author, and public speaker during the first half of the 20th century, he emerged as America’s foremost spokesman of success, a worthy successor to Franklin and Alger.
He insisted that in a modern urban, bureaucratic society, personal advancement came less and less from the old formula—hard work, a firm moral character and self-control—and more from new techniques and approaches: the development of social skills, a sparkling personality, and an ethic of self-fulfillment.
This compelling idea became the foundation for “How to Win Friends,” one of the best-selling nonfiction books in American history.
As the messiah of the modern self-help movement, Carnegie also spread his message in the famous Carnegie Course. First launched in the 1910s, it would be taught to hundreds of thousands of students over the following century. Filled with Carnegie’s advice about personality development, social interactions, emotional dynamics, and making the other person feel important, it would inspire a host of disciples and offshoots.
From Tony Robbins to Stephen Covey, Norman Vincent Peale to M. Scott Peck, Deepak Chopra to Oprah Winfrey, an army of self-help guides have spread out over the modern landscape promoting a Carnegian message of therapeutic self-fulfillment and human relations.
Given this powerful cultural imprint, it is no surprise to learn that a number of prominent people have completed the Carnegie Course, read “How to Win Friends,” and imbibed many of its principles.
Prominent business leaders such as investor Warren Buffett, automobile executive Lee Iacoca, and popcorn king Orville Redenbacher finished the course and attributed much of their success to its influence. Entertainers such as country music star Johnny Cash and actor Chuck Norris did likewise and praised Carnegie principles for helping them succeed.
Even in the realm of politics his influence has been felt, most famously in the odd couple of Lyndon Johnson and Jerry Rubin in the 1960s.
The president had completed the course, and even taught it for a time, during his rise in Texas politics in the 1930s. His great opponent, the radical activist Rubin, also underwent Carnegie training to help him hone his public speaking and group organizing skills.
Thus to understand Dale Carnegie and the import of his ideas is to understand something fundamental about success in modern America. Knowing what we see as essential to achieving success opens a window on many of our basic values and commitments, and on what we think is truly important in life.
Steven Watts is professor of history at the University of Missouri and a frequent commentator on various national media. He is the author of seven books, including “Self-Help Messiah: Dale Carnegie and Success in Modern America.” He will speak on Carnegie in the Crawley Great Lives Series at the University of Mary Washington on Thursday, Feb. 21. The program will be held in Dodd Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. and is open to the public free of charge.