FOR MANY years, I had 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, an 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.

Gradually, this prompted me to delve deeper into the genesis and evolution of Carnegie’s influential ideas about modern success.

It became clear that we knew little about the man himself; a full-scale biography did not exist. A bit of detective work revealed a fat cache of primary sources regarding Carnegie—letters, reminiscences, lectures, artifacts, scrapbooks, photographs, essays, teaching outlines, book manuscripts—sitting unexamined in an archive at the offices of Dale Carnegie and Associates, his company.

So I decided to write a biography of this important figure. To my great good fortune, the story of Carnegie’s life quickly took shape as an engaging story: rags to riches, great failures and great success, and a fascinating, secret personal life that evaded the attention of his family until I uncovered its existence while doing the book.

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, 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 have done 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 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, on what we think is truly important in life.

Editor’s note: The University of Mary Washington’s William B. Crawley Lecture Series will present a lecture on Dale Carnegie by Steve Watts on Tuesday, Jan. 30, at 7:30 p.m. in the Dodd Auditorium of George Washington Hall. Great Lives lectures are open to the public free of charge. No tickets are required. For more information, contact the Office of University Events and Conferencing’s information line at 540/654-1065.

Steven Watts is professor of history at the University of Missouri and is 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.”

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