On the afternoon of 9 May 1862, during Henry David Thoreau’s funeral at the First Parish Meetinghouse in Concord, Massachusetts, his mentor and friend Ralph Waldo Emerson gave a eulogy that would be remembered for decades. The American essayist, philosopher, and poet vocalized a thought that shocked the deceased’s acquaintances: “He seemed born for greatness… and I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition.”
Thoreau had all the talent, resources, education, and connections that a man in the nineteenth-century United States needed to succeed—yet, he had deliberately decided not to: he had refused the brilliant career that was paved in front of him and retreated to a hut in the woods around Walden Pond, not far from his birthplace in Concord, to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, […] to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”
“Instead of engineering for all America,” Emerson boomed in his speech, Thoreau “was the captain of a huckleberry-party.” He deliberately chose berry-picking over ambition, openly stating he did not want to believe in modernity as a whole, showing, to himself and the world, that another way was possible—and he did so while industrialization was taking over, revolutionizing the lifestyle of millions.
Emerson’s thoughts—one fails not just if they’re unsuccessful at something, they fail even if they don’t try succeeding at something—are now commonly accepted across all of the United States. But things haven’t always been so. There was a time when not succeeding, or not trying to succeed, was not equal to failing, a time during which people couldn’t be failures. This story, the story of how failure, from being something that happens to you (which you can experience and overcome) to something you are (which is therefore deeply linked to your identity) began in the United States during the late eighteenth century, and is the end product of a cultural and economic process which cultural historian Scott Sandage masterfully analyzed in Born Losers: A History of Failure in America (Harvard University Press, 2005.)
From an ordeal to an identity
To trace the history of failure in the United States and its early victims, Sandage plumbed the depths of archives of all sorts across the country, analyzing a 200-year period from the late eighteenth to the late twentieth centuries. The credit reports, begging letters, suicide notes, and personal writings that he scouted out and examined gave him a window on the people who were called failures, or who believed that they were one, to trace the trajectory of such a complex and powerful, but underestimated and understudied phenomenon. Before his research, these kinds of documents were underused as actual historical sources. With his work, Sandage dignified them and reconstructed the profile of the loser—which became a benchmark to determine the human features and circumstances used to measure success, surrender, or failure in the United States.
“Originally,” says Sandage, “failure meant to ‘stray from the path of the Lord and Christianity.’” In the early-eighteenth century entrepreneurial United States, the term broadened its meaning, becoming part of the vocabulary of business: “At that time, the only person who could have been said to have failed was a white male businessman who went bankrupt,” confirms Sandage. “You could fail in business; you could lose all your money, you could make a failure. But you couldn’t be one. The combination of ‘being’ and ‘failure’ was not part of English grammar before the eighteenth century.”
This shift is what changed everything: “Failure went from being something that happens to you, to something you are, becoming a human and philosophical categorization:” from something you can be responsible for, or not, to a label that funnels all of the aspects of your identity to one single aspect. “It went from being an ‘ordeal’ to an ‘identity’: it was a terrible thing to go bankrupt, and it created a difficult period of time in your life, but you could start over and get freed from your debts of the past.” An identity, instead, threatens to become permanent: “It is an engulfing definition, a label that’s hard to get away from. That is the moment we began using a metaphor that was originally financial to describe our souls.” “Historically,” Sandage continues, “that change can be traced to the maturation of capitalism, specifically to the moment in which people started spending their entire lives as wage-earning employees for somebody else,” rather than working for their own survival and wellbeing. And it has a lot to do with American capitalism and culture.
That shift was anything but accidental and occurred as the United States was trying to pinpoint what it meant to be American: the country had been founded less than half a century before, and many were seeking the words to define this newborn community. In that period, after a trip to the United States, French bureaucrat Alexis de Tocqueville wrote the book Democracy in America. “His goal was to try and explain to European readers what the United States was like, but he found that there was no word in French to explain that.” Sandage continues that “he repurposed the word ‘individualism,’ which meant extreme selfishness, for it.” And, when the book was translated into English in 1840, that word was incorporated into English for the first time. Then, “in 1831, Senator Henry Clay popularized the expression ‘self-made,’ saying that Americans were self-made men—meaning that they had worked their way up from humble beginnings, poverty, and hardship to be entirely self-sufficient, with no one to thank for their success but themselves.”
The expression ‘American Dream’ came a century later, but, Sandage says, “it is an idea that certainly existed before it got its name. This happened in 1931, when historian James Truslow Adams wrote a book during the Great Depression that tried to give readers inspiration and hope. In the pages of The epic of America, he claims that the American Dream is “not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” That’s not typically how the American dream is viewed today, especially in political contexts: there, it is generally a shorthand description for the idea that anyone in America can get ahead if they’re willing to work hard. That idea was never true—and it still isn’t, but Americans hold on very much to that.”
What do the myths of ‘self-made’ and ‘American Dream’ have to do with failure? “They all are an underpinning of it: they are lies that perpetuate the idea that a single person can be solely responsible for the good fortune that has come their way. ‘Self-made’ posits that a single person can be solely responsible for the bad fortune that has come their way too, and ‘American dream’ perpetuates the idea that anyone can succeed if only they’re willing to work hard enough, presuming then that someone who hasn’t succeeded hasn’t worked hard enough. The ‘American dream’ also tacks on to the definition of failure that I mentioned before (from an ordeal to an identity, from being too ambitious to being not ambitious enough) and on the fact that it’s possible to live the American dream and still fear, or feel, or be thought of as a loser.”
Keeping track of your failures
While Americans were looking for the words to define themselves, something else, equally crucial, was happening. “In the 1840s and 1850s, record-keeping became more organized in all aspects of politics and capitalism in the United States.” Bureaucracy: something that Europeans had already known for hundreds of years. “The development of bureaucracy in the United States changed the basis of living an ordinary life.”
The information age didn’t begin with newspapers, it began with bureaucracy, with “keeping a very close track of who had borrowed money, who had failed to pay back, who had started a business that failed, or succeeded, and so on. What today is probably the most famous commercial credit information company, Dun and Bradstreet, descends from a pioneering firm founded in 1841. The so-called Mercantile Agency developed a very sophisticated information system that could identify and rank nearly any businessperson nearly anywhere in the United States and then keep track of them for decades.” But it’s not just banks: there are many other ways in which bureaucracy in the nineteenth century began to keep closer track of people against their will as third parties. “In education,” Sandage says, “the system of giving grades and preserving transcripts; in policing, the centralization of police records and the preservation of criminal records.” But what do bureaucracy and the information industry have to do with failure and success? “It made it harder to define yourself on your own terms. With careful record-keeping by third parties, forgiveness and forgetting became less possible in any individual person’s life.” Erasing, or consistently diminishing, the chances that one had to redefine themselves after a failure, and bringing it closer to personal identity.
“One of the things that I hate the most about the way Americans tend to talk about failure is the frequency to which we resort to cliches, such as, ‘you’re not a failure unless you think you’re one,’ or, ‘it doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks of you.’ It’s all a fantasy in a situation in which other people keep records of your life, and those records make judgments about you that are defined by prevailing standards. The problem is not only that, around 150 years ago, fairly detailed records of ordinary people’s lives began to be kept, but particular rewards and punishments got attached to those records. Records of good grades in school, or good credit in business meant that good things could happen to you: it meant you could get a job, maybe open a mortgage and get a house. And that makes it much, much harder to declare independence from cultural and economic standards and say, ‘I’m going to define failure, or success for myself.’”
Democratizing failure: You’re next
If 200 years ago you could fail without being a failure, it means that “only a 40-year-old white male entrepreneur, capitalist businessman who lost his business could be said to have failed,” Sandage goes on. Not women, nor children, nor people of color, nor anybody else: failing was, somehow, a privilege—an action that belonged to the business elite of the time. Today, lucky for us, anyone can be a loser, “from a 12-year old girl who feels socially unfit, to somebody who has always been working and didn’t go up, but didn’t go down either.”
“Back then, being a failure was associated with people who were too ambitious. Someone who expanded his business too quickly; borrowed too much money; opened a side business that wasn’t the thing that he knew the most about. But the reason that a 12-year-old girl can be called a loser is that today we associate failure also with being not ambitious enough, with settling for average accomplishments, not having a bold plan for her life. It doesn’t have to do with your level of achievement or any setbacks that you have experienced, but with your risk averseness.” Causing a democratization of failure: “Younger people with more diverse demographic characteristics can be labeled with failures than could be done in the nineteenth century. And it’s not merely that the label can be applied to a wider variety of people, but that a wider variety of people now have the power to apply that label.”
From making one to being one, from going bankrupt to not succeeding, from not being ambitious enough, to being too ambitious. Rather than a democratization, it sounds like an indiscriminate universalization. “As a person, as well as as a historian,” confesses Sandage, “all of that just seems really crazy to me. It just seemed like we had fallen into a way of thinking about ourselves that no one had really intended, or selected, or committed to.”
The Huckleberry party
According to Sandage, the ‘American dream,’ the ‘self-made man’ and many of these business-rooted American myths “are being weaponized in politics as a way of exploiting the sense of grievance by people who have worked hard and have not gotten ahead. Those people are all over America, in cities and in the country, they are highly educated and not so well educated, but they still perceive the ‘other’ as the enemy.”
“In our country,” Sandage continues, there is a “triumphalist narrative: failure is either just a bump in the road to success or a learning experience.” Meaning that it’s worth talking about or worth giving respect to, only if it eventually leads to success. And these concepts “ruin people’s lives. There are people who fail and don’t get up. And it’s not because they’re bad, lazy, or stupid. It’s because a label can get attached to a person, and it can control the opportunities that they have. The worst thing about that may be that it also can become internalized and control the amount of energy and hope that they may feel for the rest of their lives.”
Sandage says that “there have been at various times in American history attempts to reclaim the word loser. And to reclaim failure, and to define it not as a label that defines who and what you are, but rather a normal and natural part of life, a part of every undertaking that any human might desire.” Somebody who did it, ante litteram, probably before it was necessary, or maybe when it was the most necessary, was Henry David Thoreau.
“When I got to what Emerson had said about Thoreau at his funeral, I realized that that was the kind of the problem that I was living with: that nothing’s ever good enough, that, no matter what you do, you’re supposed to do more. The problem is that Emerson, of all the students and proteges he had ever encountered, felt that Thoreau was the most talented, and therefore he had an obligation to do something great.” But—at least in Emerson’s eyes—Thoreau refused. He picked many berries, but he also wrote nine books before his early death, including Walden, which has not been out of print in more than 150 years. Claiming the right to fail might seem naïve but is actually a heroic form of resistance to the advance of modernity.