Scott A. Sandage Born Losers: A History of Failure in America


Arthur Miller:

"I found "Born Losers" a confirmation of an old belief that in American history there is a crash in every generation sufficient to mark us with a kind of congenital fear of failure. This is a bright light on a buried strain in the evolution of the United States."

Caryn James, "Critic's Notebook," New York Times, 8 June 2005

Times Literary Supplement (UK), 27 May 2005

London Review of Books, 19 May 2005

Harvard Book Review, vol. 6, no. 1 (Winter 2004)

PopMatters May 3, 2005

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 24, 2005

The Daily Telegraph [London, UK], April 1, 2005

National Post [Canada], April 12, 2005

San Francisco Chronicle, 6 March 2005

Seattle Times, 27 February 2005

Dallas Morning News, 12 March 2005

In These Times, 29 March 2005

Robert Birnbaum, “Book Rate” @

Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World:

"By examining the lives and careers of a number of businessmen who failed during the 19th century, [Scott Sandage] portrays what we reflexively think of as the dark side of the American dream but what is, in reality, an only slightly exaggerated mirror of the reality with which ordinary people -- i.e., thee and me -- are fated to contend. He explores what he rather nicely calls "the hidden history of pessimism in a culture of optimism" by recording the "voices and experiences of men who failed (and of their wives and families)" as expressed in their "private letters, diaries, business records, bankruptcy cases, suicide notes, political mail, credit agency reports, charity requests and memoirs." In so doing he examines the ways in which our attitudes toward failure and our ways of measuring it have changed; if at moments Sandage lapses into the clotted patois of contemporary academia (he teaches history at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh), for the most part Born Losers is readable, interesting and thoroughly researched."

"Born Losers," admirably concise and formidably researched, is the history of America's reverse Horatio Algers. Scott A. Sandage, an associate professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University, logged a decade in the library to produce what amounts to an authoritative chronicle of the risks of lending and borrowing in 19th-century America (although the book ranges well into the 20th.)

William S. Kowinski, Books in Heat

Boston Globe, February 6, 2005

"Scott A. Sandage's new book, Born Losers: A History of Failure in America (Harvard, $35), is a story of debtors, bankruptcy laws, credit agencies, and broken men. It details how 19th-century attitudes toward financial ruin continue to inform our ideas about loserdom today. So pay attention and you might learn something."

William S. McFeely, author of Grant: a Biography:

"Born Losers is a beautiful piece of writing. Scott Sandage is history's Dickens; his bleak house, the late nineteenth century world of almost anonymous American men who failed. With wit and sympathy, Sandage illuminates the grey world of credit evaluation, a little studied smothering arm of capitalism. This is history as it should be, a work of art exploring the social cost of our past."

Michael Kazin, author of The Populist Persuasion: An American History:

"Here is a feast of historical insight, personal narrative, and literary panache. With his focus on the making of economic failure, Sandage enables us to see and understand 19th century America in an entirely new, provocatively sober way... A fascinating book."

Americans do not like to talk about failure. It is the underside of an American dream that stresses winning over losing, succeeding over succumbing. But not everyone makes it and the story of failure has a history that Scott Sandage probes with subtlety and grace in this impressive work of cultural history. Born Losers is deeply researched, carefully argued, and well written. His examination of commercial failure and the problems of identity goes a long way toward reconfiguring our understanding of the American dream.