The father of self-help
He threw off his provincial upbringing to study acting in New York City, and went on the road with a professional touring company. In the years after World War I, he married a divorced "countess" and bummed around Europe, running a traveling exhibition about Lawrence of Arabia, living on an island in Budapest and doing that classic Lost Generation thing: writing a novel about how stultifying things were back home. When that marriage broke up, he returned to the States where, in time, he entered into an affair with a brilliant Jewish woman — married, but with a husband willing to look the other way, a man he eventually befriended. He always believed he had fathered her daughter.
This bohemian-sounding résumé belongs to a man who, in many eyes, personifies the blandest, most anodyne face of American culture: Dale Carnegie, author of "How to Win Friends and Influence People," one of the best-selling and most influential books of the 20th century, and the father of the modern self-help movement. Born into a struggling Missouri farm family, Carnegie became the head of a thriving company that mounted courses in public speaking across the nation. Contemporary figures as diverse as Lyndon B. Johnson and Jerry Rubin, the founder of the Yippies, as well as such business-world icons as Warren Buffett and Lee Iacocca, credited Dale Carnegie Training courses with launching their careers.
Also Charles Manson, according to Jeff Guinn’s biography of the mass-murder mastermind published earlier this year. The notorious sociopath took classes based on "How to Win Friends and Influence People" while serving time in a federal penitentiary for grand theft auto. Manson’s particular area of expertise was a key Carnegie precept: Get people to do what you want by convincing them it’s their own idea. That was how he persuaded his followers to do what they didn’t even realize was his bidding.
Carnegie — who, to judge from Steven Watts’ new biography, "Self-Help Messiah: Dale Carnegie and Success in Modern America," was a perfectly lovely man — would no doubt have been horrified to learn of this fact, but I confess that it is precisely this revelation that prompted me to pick up Watts’ book (and download a copy of "How to Win Friends and Influence People"). What sort of program lends itself equally well to would-be Rotary Club presidents and leaders of homicidal doomsday cults? What sort of man could have devised it?