Carnegie, Dale (1888-1955)

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Carnegie, Dale (1888-1955)

Aphorisms, home-spun wisdom, and an unflagging belief in the public and private benefits of positive thinking turned Dale Carnegie's name into a household phrase that, since the 1930s, has been uttered with both gratitude and derision. Applying the lessons that he learned from what he perceived to be his failures early in life, Carnegie began to teach a course in 1912. Ostensibly a nonacademic, public-speaking course, Carnegie's class was really about coming to terms with fears and other problems that prevented people from reaching their full potential. Through word of mouth the course became hugely popular, yet Carnegie never stopped tinkering with the curriculum, excising portions that no longer worked and adding new material based on his own ongoing life experience. In 1936, he increased his profile exponentially by publishing How to Win Friends and Influence People, which ranks as one of the most purchased books of the twentieth century. Although Carnegie died in 1955, his course has continued to be taught worldwide, in virtually unchanged form, into the late 1990s.

Carnegie (the family surname was Carnagey, with an accent on the second syllable; Carnegie changed it when he moved to New York, partly because of his father's claim that they were distant relatives of Andrew Carnegie and partly because the name had a cachet of wealth and prestige) grew up on a farm in Missouri; his family was, according to his own accounts, poverty-stricken. His mother, a strict and devout Methodist, harbored not-so-secret hopes that her son might become a missionary; some missionary zeal can be seen in Carnegie's marketing of his course. At the age of eighteen, Carnegie left home to attend Warrensburg State Teacher's College. There, he made a name for himself as a riveting and effective public speaker. Just short of graduating, he decided to quit and start a career as a salesman in the Midwest. Despite his knack for expressing himself, his heart was never in sales, and he was less than successful. In 1910, Carnegie headed for New York City and successfully auditioned for admission into the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts. The new style of acting taught at the school, radical for its time, stressed sincerity in words and gestures. Students were encouraged to emulate the speech and movement of "real people" and to move away from posturing and artificiality. Carnegie spent even less time as a professional actor than he did as a salesman, but this new method of acting would become a vital part of his course.

In 1912 Carnegie was back in sales, working for the Packard car and truck company, after a disillusioning tour with a road company that was staging performances of Molly Mayo's Polly of the Circus. Living in squalor and unable to make ends meet, Carnegie nonetheless walked away from his Packard sales job and began doing the one thing he felt qualified to do: teach public speaking to businessmen. The director of a YMCA on 125th Street in Harlem agreed to let Carnegie teach classes on commission. (At that time most continuing adult education took place at the YMCA or YWCA.) Carnegie's breakthrough came when he ran out of things to say and got the class members to talk about their own experiences. No class like this had ever been offered, and businessmen, salesmen, and, to a lesser extent, other professionals praised the course that gave them the opportunity to voice their hopes and fears, and the means to articulate them. Both academic and vocational business courses were in short supply during this time, and most professionals had little understanding of communications or human relations principles. Carnegie anticipated this need and geared his course toward the needs of the business professional.

From 1912 until his death in 1955, Carnegie's chief concern was the fine-tuning and execution of his course, formally titled The Dale Carnegie Course in Public Speaking and Human Relations, but fondly known to millions of graduates as the "Dale Course." Carnegie also attempted to publish a novel, The Blizzard, which was ill-received by publishers. His publishing luck changed in 1936, when Leon Shimkin of Simon & Schuster persuaded him to write a book based on lectures he gave in various sessions of the course. How to Win Friends and Influence People was published in November of that year and became an instant best-seller. Following this accomplishment, Carnegie published a few similar works that also became bestsellers, most notably How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. None of his subsequent literary endeavors, however, matched the success of How to Win Friends, although they are all used, to some extent, in his course.

With the huge sales of the book, Carnegie faced a new challenge: meeting the growing public demand for the course. In 1939, he agreed to begin licensing the course to other instructors throughout the country. By now divorced from his first wife (the marriage ended unhappily in 1931—Carnegie's Lincoln the Unknown, with its unflattering portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln, was later revealed by the author to be "largely autobiographical"), he met Dorothy Vanderpool, whom he would marry in 1941. Dorothy, a graduate of the Dale Course, became an ardent supporter of her husband's work and was responsible for making the business a successful enterprise long after her husband's death. When she died, on August 6, 1998, the Dale Carnegie Course, mostly unchanged in form and content, was still going strong.

The Great Depression transformed Carnegie's program from a relatively successful endeavor into a cultural monument. His low-key optimism and no-nonsense approach to human relations proved irresistible to the massive number of Americans who were unemployed. The publication of his book meant that his message, and his appeal, could spread much further and faster than it had through the auspices of the course. A year after its publication, the book's title was a permanent part of the language; the phrase "How to Win Friends and Influence People" quickly overshadowed Dale Carnegie and his course, and became a catch-phrase for enthusiasm borne of naiveté, as well as a euphemism for manipulative styles of dealing with others.

Carnegie's appeal was always complex and convoluted. His book spoke to the hopes and fears of an entire nation beset by serious economic difficulties, and yet many people thought his ideas were too simplistic and out of tune with the times to take without a heavy dose of irony. He had his share of famous critics as well, such as James Thurber and Sinclair Lewis, who reviled How to Win Friends in their writings. Apart from the high-minded criticism of these and other intellectuals, the main obstacle that kept people from signing up for Carnegie's course was the same thing that won over many other graduates: enthusiasm. The unbridled enthusiasm that was such a part of the course, and that students demonstrated during open-house sessions, could be off-putting as well as inspiring; people were unsure whether it was contrived or real. There was a surge of renewed public interest in the late 1980s, when Lee Iacocca revealed in his autobiography the extent to which Carnegie's course had influenced him and his willingness to pay for his employees to take the course. In the end, Carnegie's sustained popularity was due as much to the controversy caused by the public's inability to take him completely seriously as to the man's teachings and writings.

—Dan Coffey

Further Reading:

Carnegie, Dale. How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1984.

——. How to Win Friends and Influence People. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1981.

Conniff, Richard. "The So-So Salesman Who Told Millions How to Make It Big." Smithsonian. Vol. 18, October 1987, 82-93.

Kemp, Giles, and Edward Claflin. Dale Carnegie: The Man Who Influenced Millions. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1989.

Longgood, William. Talking Your Way to Success: The Story of the Dale Carnegie Course. New York, Association Press, 1962.