Self-Help Messiah: Dale Carnegie and Success in Modern America

Written by Steven Watts
Review by Phyllis T. Smith

This biography of Dale Carnegie is as engrossing as a good novel. Born in 1888, Carnegie rose from boyhood poverty in rural Missouri. At the same time that America was breaking free from Victorian strictures and becoming a consumer society, Carnegie journeyed from his fundamentalist religious roots to preaching self-actualization and self-esteem. Ironically, the advocate of self-confidence as a foundation of career success suffered from severe social anxiety as an adolescent, and he failed in an early career in sales. But, with great determination, he honed his public speaking skills and succeeded first as a speech coach and then as an author, with his books still worldwide bestsellers today.

Self-Help Messiah presents a nuanced portrait of a complex man. I wasn’t completely convinced by the author’s contention that Carnegie shaped the outlook of millions of Americans, however. Wasn’t he just giving them what they wanted, skills to prosper in the modern workplace? Steven Watts obviously feels that something was lost as well as gained when moral absolutes and rock-ribbed values of individualism were traded for devotion to personal image and smooth self-presentation. It is possible to see the interpersonal techniques Carnegie taught as genuinely humanistic, but one can also view him as advocating psychological manipulation as a tool for getting ahead. It is interesting how his philosophy developed out of his own needs, and made it possible for him to overcome the feelings of inferiority that originally plagued him.