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Born Losers: A History of Failure in America

3.73 of 5 stars 3.73  ·  rating details  ·  93 ratings  ·  16 reviews

What makes somebody a Loser, a person doomed to unfulfilled dreams and humiliation? Nobody is born to lose, and yet failure embodies our worst fears. The Loser is our national bogeyman, and his history over the past two hundred years reveals the dark side of success, how economic striving reshaped the self and soul of America.

From colonial days to the Columbine tragedy,

Paperback, 384 pages
Published April 30th 2006 by Harvard University Press (first published 2005)
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Kressel Housman
Before reading this book, if anyone had asked me how I thought the term “loser” became the catch-all insult that it is now, I would have guessed it was the influence of sports. What other human endeavor divides people up into “winners” and “losers” so clearly? As it turns out, though, the source of the term is from business. In the early 19th century, when business was unregulated and market failures could result in panics, bank runs, and the uprooting of thousands of people’s lives, “loser” sim ...more
In Born Losers: A History of Failure in America, author Scott A. Sandage points out that the nineteenth century, despite being an age of capitalism, industrialization, and promise, was also an age of great economic hardship and loss for men and women who together created a culture of failure that personally and morally defined them. Society and the government held people individually accountable for failure despite circumstance, and relief was hard to come by because the government did not have ...more
Mary Overton
"'The great American Assumption,' noted W.E.B. DuBois, 'was that wealth is mainly the result of its owner's effort and that any average worker can by thrift become a capitalist.' But the post [Civil] war transformation of the corporate and industrial economy made this ideal harder than ever to attain.... Yet 'the great American Assumption' promoted the idea that men who were failures simply lacked ability, ambition, or both; what had once been said of the captives of slavery now belittled the mi ...more
Clark Hays
Failure: the American Nightmare

Born Losers is an exquisitely researched tour through the dark side of the American Dream: failure. The author plumbs a treasure trove of historical documents (court documents, letters, diaries and news and fiction) to deconstruct the rags-to-riches story of pulling oneself up by the boot straps to achieve dazzling levels of business success and prosperity. It’s a belief that has fundamentally defined the cultural identity of the “go-ahead” American. As he shows, b
cultural history of financial 'losers' in the 19th century. Not the seasonal wage laborers and slaves of Scraping By, but the people who engaged with developing American capitalism and went bust. In the early part of the nineteenth century, the dominant republican paradigm equated debt with dependency, incompatible with public virtue. After the panics of 1819, 1837 and 1857, people had to come to terms with the possibility that financial failure was not necessarily moral failure. Particularly in ...more
Ellen Pierson
In the early market economy at the dawn of the nineteenth century, the relentless pursuit of success began to emerge as a central tenet of a still-developing American identity. Maybe we can even trace it to the get-rick-quick mentality behind the original settlement of Jamestown. I’m not a historian. Scott Sandage is, though, and much of his work is focused on studying ways in which many American cultural phenomena often associated with the twentieth century actually had their roots in the ninet ...more
I have been trying to read Born Losers for a while. Very glad I did. It is a wonderful discussion of the role of failure in American Society. Sandage finds the period that separates when Americans saw failure as a stepping stone to success to a society that saw failure as an inherent flaw in ones character. For me, Sandage's book shows the failures of contemporary American society with ease of self esteem: all children are smart and receive awards for student of the day, week, month, year, troph ...more
Benson Hawk
This book received a good deal of fanfare from professional academic journals when it came out, and I was anticipating that it would contain quite a lot of new insights into the intersection of economic, gender, and the ideology of success. I was disappointed to find that this was relatively less developed than I hoped. Beautifully written, with some really compelling primary research, Sandage's work backs away from some of the theoretical leaps that could have made this a classic in the field.
Bill West
Sandage takes you off the beaten path for a look at the evolution of the meaning of failure in America.

The research is thorough without being tedious, the stories are engaging & personal, and the author imbues their retelling with compassion.

I want to read more history like this.
Gerald Prokop
With a great subject and some good nuggets of insight, I think what bothered me about this book was the writing. It definitely has that history-text feel to it, and I ended up wanting more to tie all the facts and anecdotes together. It was also really distracting the way the quotations were presented. The book is littered with brackets, [sic], etc. It would've been nice if there was simply a disclaimer somewhere saying that the quotations were edited to correct spelling and then have them prese ...more
I really wanted to like this book, and for a better reason than my fascination with failure and hilarity. It started out with a great foreword in which Sandage introduces the philosophical shift in the definition of failure throughout American history. In colonial America, failure was strictly a business term. Then the term started to be used more and more in regard to morals and virtue in the 19th century (ah, temperance...).

However, this book was just a very dry and chock full of less than int
I read this for work on a story ( The theme is fascinating: this Carnegie Mellon history professor explores how failure in America went from being something that happens to you to something you are, and he also reveals how the credit rating business got started, as a way of evaluating someone in an expanding marketplace where you could no longer know all your business partners face to face. As a book, however, I think it badly needed to be boiled down, an ...more
An extraordinary history, a work of art in the true sense: crafted deliberately, even delicately, each sentenced honed and balanced, connections made between the famous and the plain that are so sharply pertinent, so perfectly apt that they seem like fiction. This is a rare, rare feat of historical imagination and skill.
The introduction and conclusion were brilliant and had some great insights into the American psyche regarding wealth. The whole book tackled a serious issue and dispensed with so much of the self-made-man myths.
Joe Davis
Great history book addressing the concept of failure in America and its evolution during the 19th Century.
Quite a history lesson. Insightful and interesting. A tad repetitive. Overall, good.
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“Debtors and idlers abounded in the colonial era, but failing in business was not so calamitous as falling from grace... In Early America, fear of failure loomed largest on Sunday. Monday morning dawned about the year 1800. By then, ‘failure’ meant an entrepreneurial failure.” 1 likes
“The age of the self-made man was also the age of the broken man... This ‘American sense’ looked upon failure as a ‘moral sieve’ that trapped the loafer and passed the true man through. Such ideologies fixed blame squarely on individual faults, not extenuating circumstances.” 1 likes
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