Carnegie Redefines Self-Help Literature Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Dale Carnegie, a farm boy who struggled through adversity to establish a career in public speaking, achieved fame with his practical advice for business and personal success.

Summary of Event

Dale Carnegie was born into a world undergoing painful social and economic change. For most people in the United States, farms and small communities represented a mythic past; the future was in the cities. New York City, for example, grew from a population of 125,000 in 1820 to more than 5 million by 1910. Many urban inhabitants were immigrants, of whom some 9 million entered the United States in the single decade between 1900 and 1910. Most dreamed of solvency, if not success, but they entered a struggle for mere survival in an increasingly complex industrial world. [kw]Carnegie Redefines Self-Help Literature (Nov., 1936) [kw]Self-Help Literature, Carnegie Redefines (Nov., 1936)[Self Help Literature, Carnegie Redefines (Nov., 1936)] [kw]Help Literature, Carnegie Redefines Self- (Nov., 1936) [kw]Literature, Carnegie Redefines Self-Help (Nov., 1936) How to Win Friends and Influence People (Carnegie) Self-help books[Self help books] [g]United States;Nov., 1936: Carnegie Redefines Self-Help Literature[09250] [c]Publishing and journalism;Nov., 1936: Carnegie Redefines Self-Help Literature[09250] Carnegie, Dale

Formal education had little to offer, and demand for public education was met only gradually. For example, the United States had fewer than eight hundred high schools in 1878, and that figure increased to only fifty-five hundred during the next twenty years. High school education, if achieved at all, marked the end of formal schooling for most Americans; in 1904, approximately one hundred thousand students were enrolled in U.S. colleges or universities, which, in any case, were more nearly allied to the traditional European studies of Latin, Greek, and rhetoric than to the needs of a newly industrialized age.

An overwhelming demand existed for adult education, and that demand was met in a number of ways. Most successful was the Chautauqua program, which influenced Carnegie in his youth. Founded in 1874, by 1883 this summer camp had expanded to include a winter home-study program. In 1888, New York began offering free lectures for working people, resulting in an attendance of seven million within the first fifteen years. That idea spread, as did public libraries (largely funded by millionaire Andrew Carnegie) and mechanics’ institutes.

For most Americans, however, the printed word remained the primary source of information. Although self-help books had long been popular, most still dealt with manners and morals, offering advice on the use of forks and cures for consumption and rabies. Self-help books for men dealt mostly with the vast generalities of writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Ruskin, and Émile Coué.

Dale Carnegie, like many other Americans, had undergone the experience of being the outsider in a system that rejected him. Born in Maryville, Missouri, he was the son of a devout Methodist mother, a schoolteacher before her marriage, and a farmer father who had completed six years of education. (Until 1916, the family name was Carnegey.) Carnegie’s father was unsuccessful; his crops were wiped out by flood and his livestock by disease. The father suffered severe and suicidal depression, overwhelmed with health problems, debts, and threats of bank foreclosure on the farm. The son attended a one-room school.

The family moved to live near Warrensburg so that Dale could live at home and attend the tuition-free college that later became Central Missouri State University. Awkward, self-conscious, and poorly dressed, he was a failure until he trained himself to compete in oratorical and debate contests. Eventually, he began to win, and his success gave him confidence. He left the college in 1908, but he never graduated, having failed in his studies of Latin.

He became for a time a salesman for the International Correspondence School, after which he eked out a living selling meat in small Dakota towns. In 1911, he went to New York to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. The school, founded in 1886, taught a natural acting style that contrasted with the overstated and stylized acting that dominated much of the nineteenth century stage. Carnegie went on the road with an acting company, but he discovered he was not suited for the stage.

In 1912, he was living in a New York slum and attempting to sell cars. Depression and headaches caused him to give up that job, however, and he dreamed of being a writer. (He eventually completed a novel, The Blizzard, in 1921, only to have it rejected by publishers and his literary agent.) Deciding to write and teach public speaking, he applied to teach adult courses at Columbia University and New York University but was rejected. At last, he worked out an agreement to teach at the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) at 125th Street in Harlem, which was then primarily a white neighborhood. The YMCA doubted the course would prove attractive and offered to pay him only a percentage of profits rather than the two dollars per session he had requested. He was soon earning thirty dollars per session. By the outbreak of World War I, he was able to hire instructors and to write tracts to standardize his methods.

By this time, he had rejected the formal oratorical techniques he had studied in college and had developed techniques similar to those he had studied at the Academy of Dramatic Arts. In 1915, with J. Berg Esenwein, he wrote The Art of Public Speaking, which was based on his theories. He followed this with Public Speaking: A Practical Course for Business Men (1926), Little Known Facts About Well Known Men (1934), and a study of his boyhood hero, Lincoln the Unknown (1932).

Carnegie’s next book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, appealed to a wide audience frightened by economic and urban change and, by 1936, wearied of economic depression. In 1936, only 12.9 percent of high school graduates would enter college, but an urbanized and industrialized society with widespread unemployment demanded more skills than did the community life of the past. By 1936, one American family in four was reported to be on relief; 38 percent of families (11.7 million families) lived below the poverty line. In Europe and the United States, fascists on the political right and socialists and communists on the left wanted to overturn a seemingly failing system, but the majority of Americans simply wanted to survive and, if possible, thrive. To these people, Dale Carnegie offered hope.


How to Win Friends and Influence People was, Carnegie wrote, the book he wished he could have read two decades earlier. He was modest about the book and its future, hoping it would sell fifteen or twenty thousand copies. Instead, the book was a sensational success. Its effects were personal and immediate as well as general and far-ranging.

Carnegie’s personal success was quickly obvious. The book soon began to sell five thousand copies per week. Despite parodies by humorists such as James Thurber and uncompromising condemnation by academics and intellectuals, the book appeared for two years on The New York Times best-seller list. By the time Carnegie’s widow, Dorothy, revised the book in 1981, more than fifteen million copies had been sold.

The effect of this success on his courses in public speaking was also immediate; enrollment in the courses increased dramatically. Carnegie was to have problems with these classes during the late 1930’s and World War II, but, by 1992, Dale Carnegie training was offered in every U.S. state and in some sixty other countries. Graduates by then numbered 3.5 million. Life magazine named Carnegie as one of the one hundred most important Americans of the twentieth century.

Carnegie also revolutionized the genre of self-help literature. Rather than speaking as a specialist, Carnegie addressed his students as a slightly more experienced equal speaking to equals, freely admitting his own mistakes. The roots of his style clearly lie in the Methodist sermons of his youth. His work is heavy with anecdotes about people, both famous and unknown, who have overcome adversity using the techniques Carnegie advocates; he often echoes the rhetoric of a Protestant minister, drawing lessons from the parables and other stories of the Scriptures. Carnegie’s tone is informal, conversational, even ungrammatical. His sentences generally are brief, although never condescending, and his words are simple.

If in his style he offered a work consistent with the religious experiences of many, in substance he offered a simple, easily comprehended system that was unlike the heavy-handed philosophizing of earlier self-help literature. His most direct source was American philosopher William James, from whom Carnegie borrowed the idea that emotion follows action, rather than precedes it. Logically, then, the imitation of a mood will produce the desired mood. The emotions he advocated are essentially a secularized version of the biblical Golden Rule: courtesy, sensitivity to others, assertiveness rather than aggression. Understanding the need to motivate others, he advocated a system based on rewards and praise, not punishment. He advocated what would later be called conflict resolution and teamwork to replace the aggressive individualism of the mythic American frontier. Implicit everywhere and frequently explicit was the assumption that financial rewards will follow.

Unlike earlier self-help literature, Carnegie’s book was an exhortation to action. He gives instructions on how to use the book and summarizes his points for easy reference. Theories were kept to a minimum; anecdotal accounts were written so that a reader could imitate the behavior described.

Although condemned by critics and academicians, Carnegie’s techniques and style, by the late twentieth century, had spread throughout much business literature as well as self-help literature. In the academically sanctioned A Passion for Excellence (1985), for example, authors Tom Peters and Nancy Austin incorporated much of Carnegie’s anecdotal approach, gave tips for developing courtesy and sensitivity to others, and echoed Carnegie in their advocacy of motivation based on rewards and praise. Carnegie’s influence also is evident in literature produced by entrepreneurs such as Mary Kay Ash, founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics, who directly echoed Carnegie with chapters on “Golden Rule Management” and instructions about how to make others feel a sense of self-worth in Mary Kay on People Management (1984). Ash, too, urged motivation through rewards. Carnegie’s views were also echoed in some New Age literature, such as Marilyn Ferguson’s The Aquarian Conspiracy: Personal and Social Transformation in the 1980s (1980), in which abilities to motivate, engender self-esteem, and demonstrate sensitivity were defined as essential qualities in leaders of the future.

Stress reduction was the subject of the second best seller produced by Carnegie as a result of his initial success. How to Stop Worrying and Start Living (1948) How to Stop Worrying and Start Living (Carnegie) became perhaps Carnegie’s most influential book. How to Win Friends and Influence People was written on the assumption that behavior modification is relatively simple: Imitate a feeling, and the feeling will come. In the preface to his next book, however, Carnegie observed that the process is actually more complex because of the intervention of emotional blocks, chief among them anxiety or worry, which would later, as he described them, come to be called “stress.” At the heart of these blocks, he noted, are unfocused fears about the future, humorlessness and self-importance, depression, inability to deal with criticism and life’s inevitable adversities, and inability to accept oneself.

Carnegie had no access to statistics indicating a relationship between stress and disease, but he inferred this relationship from popular psychiatric literature and from personal observation of his father’s depression and of his own tension-related headaches while he was living in New York slums. He found many historical anecdotes to show his readers that, if they were suffering, they were not alone. The book ended with thirty-one stories by individuals who overcame stress, ranging from relatively unknown businessmen to singing cowboy Gene Autry, baseball star Connie Mack, and boxing champion Jack Dempsey. In effect, Carnegie had produced the first modern work on stress management. Again, he had offered his readers hope with the promise that at least some of their fate was within their control. By 2005, fifteen million copies of How to Stop Worrying and Start Living had been sold, and the book’s influence had been felt in the writings of many other self-help leaders. How to Win Friends and Influence People (Carnegie) Self-help books[Self help books]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carnegie, Dale. How to Develop Self-Confidence and Influence People by Public Speaking. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1956. Adaptation of Public Speaking and Influencing Men in Business (1926), which was itself an adaptation of Public Speaking: A Practical Course for Business Men (1926). Includes chapters on memory development, preparation, and vocabulary development. More a formal textbook than a book of practical hints.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. Rev. ed. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984. The original 1948 work with some revisions by Dorothy Carnegie.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. How to Win Friends and Influence People. Rev. ed. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1981. The original 1936 work with some revisions by Dorothy Carnegie.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kasson, John F. Rudeness and Civility: Manners in Nineteenth-Century Urban America. New York: Hill & Wang, 1990. Makes passing mention of Carnegie and treats his work with contempt as showing the middle classes how to achieve a spurious gentility. Includes much valuable material about the self-help tradition and the emergence of urbanization and industrialization, but facilely categorizes readers of self-help literature and ignores economic motivations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kemp, Giles, and Edward Claflin. Dale Carnegie: The Man Who Influenced Millions. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. Pulls together materials from other sources, including newspaper reports and reviews, to describe Carnegie’s influence. Compensates for a scarcity of biographical material with accounts of Carnegie’s training sessions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meyer, Donald. The Positive Thinkers: Popular Religious Psychology from Mary Baker Eddy to Norman Vincent Peale and Ronald Reagan. Rev. ed. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1988. Scholarly work surveys self-help writers. Unfortunately lumps together many dissimilar writers and provides only superficial readings of many texts, including Carnegie’s.

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