Self Help in Modern America: A Conversation with Historian Steven Watts

Albert Mohler: This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Steven Watts specializes in cultural and intellectual history, and that of the United States. He has authored a number of biographies on popular figures, including Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way, The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century. That book was chosen as one of five finalists for the 2005 Los Angeles Times Book Award in biography. He also teaches history at the University of Missouri. His most recent work, and the topic of our conversation today, is Self-Help Messiah: Dale Carnegie and Success in Modern America. I’ve really been looking forward to this conversation with Professor Watts about Dale Carnegie, one of the most important figures in the 20th century in America, and important for reasons that go far beyond what most Americans may yet know. Professor Watts, welcome to Thinking in Public.


Steven Watts:           Thank you very much. I’m delighted to be with you.


Albert Mohler:          Your book on Dale Carnegie seems to be, in one sense, arriving just as the first generation in a modern American experience now arrives on the scene relatively unaware of who Dale Carnegie was and why that name is so familiar. Why this book now?


Steven Watts:           Well, this book arose out of my own research agenda. Over the last 15 or 20 years, I’ve been writing biographies of important figures in modern American culture, and it just so happens I had been teaching Dale Carnegie’s book in a couple of my classes for quite some time. As I looked into his life… At one point when I was looking for a new book to begin, I gathered pretty quickly that there had not been a real full-scale, full-length biography of him written. To me it seemed like a natural call. I think it sort of happened. The context that you mentioned is happenstance because really the project was internally generated on my part.


Albert Mohler:          That probably is true. The best projects are where an author becomes very much interested in something and that makes for the best book that leads to an interested readership as well. I have to tell you how I came to your book. Half of my interest is as a theologian very much aware of where Dale Carnegie and his movement really fit within some of the most interesting theological currents of the 20th century, even though most people don’t think of it that way. The other half was my own personal experience, because as a very young man… indeed, as a 15 year old boy… I was handed How to Win Friends and Influence People and told that this book was very important to my future and success, and it was given to me by someone whose theological worldview… I think he didn’t even recognize… was completely at odds with that of Dale Carnegie, which has led me to a very interesting assessment of the fact that the influence of Dale Carnegie went well beyond the people who would’ve agreed with his worldview because they basically thought they agreed with his technique.


Steven Watts:           Right. I think that’s an important distinction. I was just thinking as you were talking: I came at Carnegie from something of a different direction. I’ve taught a course for a number of years on success writing in America and various notions and paradigms of success and looked to people like Benjamin Franklin and Horatio Alger and so on. Carnegie, of course, in the 20th century had emerged as a major figure. I came at him from that direction, looking at his famous book and his teaching course and so on as an example of this success tradition in America. There are a lot of different ways to come at Carnegie. I think he was a central figure in that way.


Albert Mohler:          Considering his influence and considering the reverberations of his influence throughout the culture, how unlikely was it that this boy… born in a very rural town in Missouri… would come to this kind of national and international prominence?


Steven Watts:           I think it’s quite unlikely. As you mentioned, Carnegie came from a hard-scrabble background in the rural midwest up in the northwest section of Missouri: grew up as a kid in the late 1800s, really still on the edge of the frontier, I think. His father was a poor farmer who struggled to make a living as a farmer and not very successfully at that. He came from a very tough background and had to climb his way up personally to success in America. He sort of reversed the longstanding tradition in America of heading west, young man by heading east, young man. He went to New York in his 20s and made fame and fortune there by reversing that process.His personal story I think is quite remarkable as a success tale in its own right. It is. In one sense, as you made very clear in your book, his personal narrative is essential to understanding the development of his worldview, philosophy, and his approach to what became his most famous book and the totality of what’s associated with that name: Dale Carnegie. Maybe it would help to tell that story.


Steven Watts:           Right. Carnegie came to success actually in a very long-entangled fashion. As you know from reading the book, it was not a quick process at all. When he went to the East, to the New York area, he went through quite a variety of jobs and tasks. He was a magazine writer. He was a failed novelist. He tried his hand at selling automobiles. He tried his luck as an actor, which is what he was really interested in at the beginning. In all of these things he was not very successful at all. He finally found his footing returning to something that he had done very well at in college back in Missouri, and that is public speaking. He began to offer a course on public speaking through the YMCA in New York, really as just a way to keep body and soul together. He discovered that he had a talent for this. As the course grew, he began to attract a good deal of attention and eventually modified this course into a success course: how to develop your self-confidence, how to use speaking in public as a method of influencing people and putting yourself forward, having other people listen to you, develop your personality, and so on. By the 1930s he was very popular as a teacher. His book sprang out of that; How to Win Friends and Influence People, which was published in the latter part of the 1930s, was really a collection of his presentations and outlines from the Carnegie course. He rose to prominence in that fashion and it took quite some time.


Albert Mohler:          Professor Watts, in terms of your tracing of the story of Dale Carnegie, in your book you also make it very clear that he had this background of crushing poverty. At one point in his life, what we would now call high school, as I read your account, he discovered that he really did have the ability to do public speaking. Especially in college that came out, where he actually ricocheted to local celebrity as a speaker back when college education meant a training in rhetoric and the expectation that a college graduate would be able to speak.


Steven Watts:           Absolutely. He went to college in the late 1800s. As he once noted in his memoir, in college one became a big man on campus either as an athlete or as an orator, a public speaker, and he had no athletic talent whatsoever. So he went down the public speaking route and he proved to be very skillful as a public speaker. Interestingly, I think he drew upon his mother in that regard; his mother, who had been very influential in his upbringing, had been a lay-preacher in the Methodist Church when he was a kid, and I think that tradition coming out of the religious background he had really helped move him along as a public speaker. That was the place that he first exhibited a kind of talent that would take him very far.


Albert Mohler:          As I recall from your book, one of the first speeches he gave… if not the first oration… was on the devil and demon alcohol.


Steven Watts:           Yes. His mother was very involved in the temperance movement there in northwest Missouri and in central Missouri when they moved a bit later. He grew up very much in that kind of tradition. He read the anti-liquor literature that his mother had around the house. I think even as a kid he had been involved in some church meetings and so on, and I think that led quite naturally to the kind of temperance speech that you refer to. That was part of his cultural background.


Albert Mohler:          When you cover his college years, you actually do get to some very serious theological issues, even in brief, when you mention the fact that even though Dale Carnegie had been born into a rather traditional rural household, an agrarian household, the mother and father who were long married to each other. Then you had the development of his mother’s faith very much a part of his life, this Methodist upbringing and context. But when he got to college there in Missouri, he really began to question those traditional Christian beliefs with which he had been raised.


Steven Watts:           That’s right. When he went to what is now Central Missouri State in Warrensburg, Missouri, which was then one of the teachers colleges in the state, I think, like many young people who are of that age he had a crisis of faith. I think that was wrapped up with his education and things he was learning and challenges to many of the things that he had taken for granted as a kid. I think… like a lot of youngsters that age, this became a kind of rebellion against his parents, and he and his mother engaged over a number of years a running dialogue or even argument about the merits of traditional Protestantism that he had been raised with.

As an adult, I think Carnegie… while he had a respect for traditional Christianity throughout most of his adult life drifted away from it in a fairly definite way, until later in life when he returned at least in a fashion.


Albert Mohler:          That’s a very interesting point, and even that returning in a fashion is interesting theologically. But I think what really is important from your book in terms of theology or theological issues is the fact that this challenge of faith, this crisis of faith, that happened to Dale Carnegie as a late adolescent really in many ways, opened his worldview to what later became filled by the new thought movement and in terms of American religious history, the kind of rather Christian-ish transcendentalism. That is, most of it made some reference to Christianity, but it was a Christianity devoid of all of its tradition doctrines.


Steven Watts:           Right. I think that’s a very keen observation. I think in the 19th century, the kind of tradition in which Carnegie grew up, there was a tight linkage between traditional Christian theology and moral principles of self control, of upright moral character, and so on. I think the rebellion that he manifested against the theological aspects of his upbringing did create a kind of vacuum. I think with Carnegie it’s like with many others in the early part of the 20th century; what you see moving into its place are various kinds of… I would call them therapeutic types of doctrine of one kind or another, I think of the positive thought movement. They are all part of that larger impulse that you just identified.


Albert Mohler:          One of the things I most appreciate about your book is how you place Carnegie in terms of intellectual history and the flow of American thought in the larger cultural trends. On page 130 of your book you write, “Perhaps the most striking element of modernity for young Carnegie was an intellectual movement overhauling the understanding of human nature and behavior in the early 20th century.” You say that was psychology, of course. As you get to psychology, you actually, before even turning explicitly to theology, deal with this new thought movement. As a theologian I find that very interesting.

I think that most Americans, including most American Christians who think they know American religious history, aren’t aware of the fact that this new thought movement was a common context, a common medium, in which you had so many of these groups and movements that emerged, from Christian science to… Well, you could draw a direct line from much of this to Oprah Winfrey. Then of course you’ve got the positive thinking movement as well.


Steven Watts:           Yes. That whole cluster of developments and ideas that you just referred to is one that I found very interesting as well. As you note with the kind of transformation of traditional Protestantism that we see in the culture in the early 20th century, you do see the new thought movement, positive thinking, other kinds of movements as well that emerge trying to create a substitute for the moral principles of traditional Christian practice and life. It really does that in a strongly therapeutic direction that becomes very psychologized very very quickly. Psychological explanations of human behavior emerge with greater and greater force almost as a kind of substitute for religious explanations of that behavior. I think the cultural manifestations of that were absolutely profound. It changed the game dramatically in American culture.


Albert Mohler:          You didn’t trace many of these elements too far in the book and I understand why, given your following of the narrative of Dale Carnegie and focusing on him in particular in terms of cultural impact. But you do mention people like Phineas P Quimby: Someone needs to write the great American biography of Phineas P Quimby, because he’s the father of so many of these movements and was even intimately related to Mary Baker Eddy.


Steven Watts:           Right. He’s a very fascinating figure and I sort of agree with you. I think a good biography would probably be an addition to our knowledge in that regard. A very important figure.


Albert Mohler:          I just think that most people aren’t aware of the fact that there are some incredibly common roots to so many of these things, even someone like Oprah Winfrey, as your book cover makes clear, perhaps the living exemplar of so much of this worldview today. I wonder if she actually understands where so much of it came from in terms of that 19th century context.


Steven Watts:           I suspect that Winfrey and other people in that broad vein of modern therapeutic doctrine probably don’t realize the background from which they sprang. I think they tend to think of themselves as creating this stuff out of whole cloth, when in fact there’s not a long but at least a substantial historical background to it. Actually, I think that’s one of the things that drew me to Carnegie, is that the more I read him and the more I studied the historical context I became convinced that, in a lot of ways, Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People was really the sort of urtext for all the therapeutic success models that have emerged in modern America. I think he’s the guy, in a lot of ways, that built the foundation that a lot of this is built on.


Albert Mohler:          I think you’re exactly right. That’s why I was so interested in your book. I also have to say that I think the intellectual fault here runs both ways. I think there are many people who think that they’re making this up as they go along without realizing this new thought background that they’re drawing upon. But I think the opposite problem is probably more common, at least amongst the people I know who think that this movement has always been there that these thoughts have always been culturally accessible… when that’s not true. In fact, I think one of the great merits of your book is how you show this great, late Victorian turn from more traditional forms of thought explicitly shaped by traditional Christian doctrines to a very different set of intellectual assumptions that people began to take as normal.


Steven Watts:           Yes. I absolutely agree with you. Actually, the burden of much of my teaching, the various classes that I teach in whatever the setting or specifics may be, I often make a very big hinge in my class: this transformation from the Victorian 19th century to the modern 20th century. I think that shift that takes place in the late 1800s and early 1900s really does create modern American culture and the modern set of values. And they are quite different from what came before. 

The only other thing I would toss into the mix here is that I also think there’s an economic dimension to this in that I think the cultural transformation we’ve been discussing here was also accompanied by a very significant economic shift, and that is the creation of consumer culture, or consumer economy at this very same time. I think in a myriad of fascinating ways the therapeutic culture of self-fulfillment is very tightly connected to that kind of economic shift.


Albert Mohler:          The fact is most Americans have heard the name Dale Carnegie, and if they associate that name with something it’s with How to Win Friends and Influence People. And if they associate that book with American culture, they probably place it in the economic culture: the business culture of America, especially at the midpoint of the 20th century. But the story is older than that and it’s a lot more interesting than that.


Albert Mohler:          That economic shift raises the whole question of why we’re talking about Dale Carnegie. I think most people… when they hear Dale Carnegie… think of him in economic context. I think they think of him as part of the business culture, especially modern American business culture as it emerged in the early 20th century and individualism, the rise of modern advertising, consumerism, and especially the cult of the professional self.


Steven Watts:           I think you’re right. Carnegie usually gets pigeonholed as a kind of spokesman for fairly crude notions of material success in modern America. I think there’s a certain validity to that. As we’ve been discussing, though, I think there’s more to it than that. What I find fascinating in terms of this economic connection is that Carnegie, I think the burden of his argument, of his book, is about creating a personality that is attractive, compelling, and charismatic. It’s the connection of those personality traits I think to success, and also the connection of personality to consumer abundance, that is really fascinating and sort of complicated and interesting. But it’s much more than simply how to get more money and how to become rich and that sort of thing. It’s a fairly dynamic and complex cultural process.


Albert Mohler:          Absolutely.


Steven Watts:           Quite intriguing.


Albert Mohler:          I think it is very intriguing and I think you’re right. However, my guess is, especially when How to Win Friends and Influence People hit the paperback medium and exploded into the multiple thousands of readers: I think it’s hard to separate that from the economic incentive that led the book to my hands when I was a 15 year old boy when a family friend said, “You’re going someplace. This will help you to get there. This is how I became a master salesman: it was by reading this book and learning its techniques.”


Steven Watts:           I think you’re right. I think, in a fashion, that was true from the very beginning, because it’s easy to forget that the book originally came out in the heart of the Great Depression. I think a lot of people who were attracted to Carnegie’s book were white collar workers in these big bureaucratic institutions, some of whom may have lost their jobs, others who were fearful of losing their jobs who were very concerned about material success, but in a very direct way of survival. I think that more direct link is there from the very beginning as well, and I think you’re right: it would be silly not to keep that in mind.


Albert Mohler:          Coming out of the Great Depression and looking backwards at Dale Carnegie’s life, by the way, as you document in your book, he shifted the spelling of his name and the pronunciation of his name so that it actually, he argued, was easier for Americans but also, as you point out, identified him in some very conscious way with one of his heroes: Andrew Carnegie.


Steven Watts:           Absolutely. Originally, the name had been Carnaygay and it was spelled C-A-R-N-A-Y-G-A-Y. When he went to New York, the shrewd young man that he was, he saw that there was some advantage to be had by changing the spelling. I found it fascinating, too. Maybe a bit of a psychological stretch that removing that nay, N-A-Y, from the middle of his name comported with the embrace of positive thinking. In an indirect way, that may have had something to do with it.


Albert Mohler:          As one European philosopher put it, “The self existed before the 20th century but not quite as conscious as the self knew itself in the 20th century,” and if there’s any self very aware of self it was Dale Carnegie. I went back in preparation for this conversation, I went back to read How to Win Friends and Influence People. I have to tell you, Professor Watts, that’s an almost intellectually embarrassing endeavor, because you read it and I find it hard to believe anyone could’ve written so straight-forwardly things that now appear to be so manipulative and so self-consciously artificial.


Steven Watts:           Right. What’s fascinating to me is that when I’ve used that book in classes that I teach, it’s always a book that I get a lot of discussion out of because I find that the students disagree violently about Dale Carnegie. Arguments break out… healthy ones… because it’s usually the case that about half the class thinks that Dale Carnegie’s injunctions and recommendations in that book are wonderful and common sense and a pathway to getting ahead, and the other half of the class reacted just as you mentioned. They find it manipulative and sort of slightly dishonest in certain ways. It’s like you want to keep your hand on your wallet when you’re around someone like that. There’s a great division of opinion about this, but I think that reflects some fault lines in our culture.


Albert Mohler:          But you had traced in the book thus far, just as a biography, here you have Andrew Carnegie who, as a young man, fails as a salesman and then finds radical success as a salesman for the Armor Meat Company in Nebraska. Then he leaves that to go to theatrical school, and then he begins teaching public speaking. He ends up being an ex-patriot writer as a failed novelist in the lost generation. Comes back to the United States. Befriends people like Lowell Thomas. Becomes part of the cultural conversation. And then in 1936 lands this book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. Was Dale Carnegie as surprised by the sales of that book as everyone, including his publisher, was?


Steven Watts:           I think he was genuinely astonished. In many ways, for all of the manipulative quality of some of the things that he wrote, in a certain way Dale Carnegie was an authentic and irregular midwesterner. I think genuinely he did not expect the book to explode on the scene as it did. My reading of the evidence that’s there is that he, as well as his publisher, expected maybe a modest success: that it would sell 20, 30, 40,000 copies and they would all make a little money and fame off of it and everyone would go home happy. I think he had no idea in the world that that book would become the bestseller that it did and go on to be one of the bestselling nonfiction books in American history, I think selling eventually some 30-odd million copies. I think never in his wildest dreams did he imagine that.


Albert Mohler:          Never in the wildest dreams of most modern writers of fiction or nonfiction are those kind of numbers still contemplated.


Steven Watts:           Indeed. I can attest to that.


Albert Mohler:          We’re talking about something stratospheric. As you document, in the first several months it sold 650,000 hardback copies, and then within the first decade five million copies. I don’t know if Dale Carnegie actually knew how to win friends and influence people, but he sure knew how to sell books.


Steven Watts:           He did. Not long ago, a friend of mine looked up the Carnegie book in terms of modern sales figures and he found that it was still one of the top 100 bestselling books at this moment. For a book that was written in the late 1930s, that’s pretty astonishing.


Albert Mohler:          It is. 

I want to go back to something you said about your class and the division the book causes in your class, because I want to admit to you and to listeners that the book causes a bit of a divide in me. A part of me is still the 15 year old who was handed that book and devoured it and realized “wow, there were a lot of things I needed to know.” How to respond to someone, how to keep a conversation going, how to shake a hand, how to understand the importance of an individual’s name. All these things are important. They’re what my grandfather called consecrated common sense: “Someone shouldn’t have to tell you this, but evidently they did.” The other part does horrify me because as I look at it I recognize the worldview behind it, and the more I read it, especially now, reading it 40 years after that first time, I see that new thought worldview bleeding through in virtually every paragraph.


Steven Watts:           Right. My reaction is much like yours. I have deeply divided feelings about it as well. In a practical vein, a few years ago I was the chairman of my department here at the university where I teach for a couple of terms. I found myself… not really on purpose but almost unconsciously… in directing the department and dealing with faculty members, many of whom are just a bit outspoken and have fairly healthy egos and all that kind of thing, relying on some of the principles that Carnegie talked about in that book: about letting other people have credit, let other people think the idea is theirs, make people feel worthwhile, try to draw people out, don’t push yourself forward. A lot of this is common sense of human relations in a positive sense in that term.

On the other hand, in the historic or cultural sense, when you look at the implications of some of what he’s saying, I think even a moral critique of one kind or another  there are some troubling aspects of it that give me a problem.


Albert Mohler:          I’m going to get back to that in just a moment. Let me tell you, I’ve often had the thought, especially reading your book and going back to read Dale Carnegie’s bestseller,and I didn’t expect to say this in public, but here I am, that this is a horrifying book. It’s manipulative. It’s filled with heresy. And I know people who need to read it, because there is that part of common sense when you realize one of the reasons Dale Carnegie was so influential is because he told people things that they did know they needed to know, especially… I want to offer this as something you didn’t deal with in your book, but I want to see if you agree with this. It seemed to me that a part of this is that here you have a young man from the midwest, from a very impoverished background. He lands in the sophisticated land of Manhattan as a very young man. There were things he had to learn in a hurry. Part of what I thought of in terms of reading your excellent book is that you had an awful lot of young Americans moving to the city where they had to develop relationships with people they didn’t know. Where they were outside of kinship structures. It struck me that that’s a part of the story as well.


Steven Watts:           I think it is. The urban context of modern life and the sheer magnitude of the numbers of people that you encounter in the modern world and the workplace for many people, as well as where you live, I think all of that stuff exerts enormous pressures on the development of personality, of personal traits, that make it easier to get along with other people. The common sense aspects of Carnegie’s books are rooted in that kind of thing. I would pretty much agree with you about that. I also know people that I thought would benefit from a close reading of the Carnegie book.

I guess the thing that I would add is that in a certain sense, at least for portions of that book, the advice is really a variation on the golden rule: treat other people as you would like to be treated and respecting other people and giving other people their due and giving them room to express themselves. These kinds of things. Up to a certain point I think the book is fine. There’s even a kind of innocence to it that is very attractive in that way. But then, as you note, it’s a good deal more than that as well.


Albert Mohler:          Your book answered a question I had along those lines, and that was whether or not the book was controversial when it first arrived in the late 1930s. You make clear that it was. There were those who responded to his book not just with dismissal or condescension but with moral revulsion.


Steven Watts:           Yes, that’s true. The broad situation when the book was published is that for a popular audience who was gobbling it up it was accepted uncritically. But there were two groups who had big problems with it. One was what I would call the intellectual class: the book review class who reviewed that book for some fairly highfalutin journals and magazines and so on. How to Win Friends got a great deal of criticism for being… I think one of the critics called it, “A book on the science of tail-wagging,” how to suck up to other people and how to comport yourself in such a way that you could have people do what you want by shamelessly flattering them. There’s a contempt, almost. Sinclair Lewis, for example, wrote an extremely critical review of the book.

        The other group is, I think, more traditional religious and moral groups. You see evidence of that in reviews that were written: a kind of outrage that in the book there was too little recognition of moral principles and the character formation of American citizens that had always been important in religious traditions. They found the book appalling for deserting that kind of traditional standard. In terms of critical reception, I think it was decidedly mixed when it came out, and that’s continued.


Albert Mohler:          In terms of the 20th century, one of the most significant intellectual developments in the United States was the rise of what Phillip Reeve calls psychological man: the rejection of the Christian worldview and its historic understanding of humanity and a new anthropology based upon a much rosier scenario, an ideal of human innocence and human perfectibility. You make very clear in your book, and that’s one of the credits of the book, that you can’t talk about Dale Carnegie without talking about his direct appropriation of psychological man and the very early 20th century psychologists, I would say into the mid 20th century, in terms of his writings.


Steven Watts:           You’re right in my opinion about that. One thing that struck me as I studied Carnegie and his writings and put this book together was the way in which he, I think, was one of the great popular psychologists of American culture in the early decades of the century up until the middle part of the century. I think he is a major figure, particularly in terms of popular audiences, basically, as one historian put it, replacing morality with psychology as a way to understand human behavior and motivation.

  Looking at How to Win Friends from that point of view is very illuminating because in the text I think what you see is precisely that. There’s a kind of psychological rendering of human behavior, of human motivation, of really human standing in the world that replaces a moral one from an earlier tradition. That shift from one to the other is a very important one for understanding where we’re at today in the country.


Albert Mohler:          As a theologian, I’m very interested in your conclusion because I was aching for it. If anything, I wish your conclusion was even longer because you do explicitly draw the tie and make very clear that this new thought movement, positive thinking, the self-reliance, the advertising culture, the consumer culture, it all came together in ways in which. For instance, you can trace from Phineas Quimby to Norman Vincent Peale to Robert Schuller to Joel Osteen, and you can see many of these same techniques and you can see this same worldview. If anything, even as Dale Carnegie’s book may be less read, I would argue his ideas and the ideas he represented are now far more pervasive than they were even during his own lifetime.

Steven Watts:           I think absolutely so, as you note in the conclusion of my book. The one thing I did try to draw very explicitly was this connection between Carnegie as a pathbreaking figure and creating the new therapeutic culture and then all of the manifestations of it that I think flowered after his death, actually, in the early 1950s, where you do have people like Norman Vincent Peale and Tony Robbins and Oprah Winfrey and Stephen Covey and on and on and on: a great variety of therapeutic figures moving out into American culture. You have the tentacles of this worldview reaching out in nearly every direction and into the depths of what we do and what we think, and you see the manifestations of it in the therapeutic of man in education, in religion, even… as you mentioned, in politics, everywhere you look. Without a doubt, I think it’s much more pervasive than it had been earlier in the century. The story of its development I think in a lot of ways is the story of modern American culture.


Albert Mohler:          When you come to the end of the book you render a verdict of sorts. You state that undeniably you believe that Dale Carnegie and his methodology, his worldview, made a contribution to American culture, but on the next to last page of your book you say that an actual, healthy, accurate understanding of human life and human nature would also recognize duty as dysfunction, achievement as well as onx, the value of a useful life as well as recovery from emotional distress, the need for limitation as well as endless self-fulfillment. In your view, the final verdict on Dale Carnegie and his worldview?


Steven Watts:           I think what I wrote there was a pretty accurate summation of it from my point of view. I guess as a historian and at least something of a cultural critic, things almost always seem very complicated to me: that it’s not usually a simple conclusion of right or wrong, good and bad. I think Carnegie in many ways replicates that. On the one hand, I think the kind of worldview, the therapeutic sensibility, that he pushed forward does have, in my view, certain positive aspects to it. I think it increases our sensitivity to human pain and suffering and I think the complicated ways emotionally in which people have to deal with the world around them. But on the other hand, I think that therapeutic sensibility has come at a very heavy price, and that is that I think it discourages a kind of formation of morality in any shape, way, or form. 

Non-judgmentalism itself has become a standard, so any kind of moral principle is almost alien in the modern world. I think it encourages a victimhood/victimization sensibility. I think it encourages people to be solely emotional, almost, rather than rational. And I think it throws a monkey wrench into that balanced view of human beings and human behavior that we really ought to have. I think we have paid a heavy price for the therapeutic culture that people like Dale Carnegie have created and we continue to do so.


Albert Mohler:          Professor Watts, you have written biographies of Walt Disney, Henry Ford, Hugh Hefner, and now Dale Carnegie. I think what’s fascinating about all four of those is that you can’t discuss modern America without any one of them. So how might be next?


Steven Watts:           Actually, I’ve been working for the last year or so on a book that should be out within a couple of years. I’ve turned to the political dimension of this modern culture of self-fulfillment and consumerism. I’ve been writing a cultural study of John F Kennedy and the way I think Kennedy is a cultural figure rather than a political one necessarily represents certain political manifestations in these broader themes that I’ve been exploring. So I’m in that project up to my neck as we speak.


Albert Mohler:          I understand what that must feel like just having finished a book project myself. I understand both the burden and the joy of it. But I want to tell you that I’m already looking forward to the next book because of the quality of this one: Self-Help Messiah: Dale Carnegie and Success in Modern American.


Professor Watts, thank you so much for joining me for Thinking in Public.


Steven Watts:           Thank you. I’ve really enjoyed talking with you.


Albert Mohler:          Many thanks again to my guest, Professor Steven Watts, for thinking with me today. When you think about the 20th century and you think about the vast intellectual, social, and cultural challenges that happened in that century you can’t talk about the time without certain individuals. Henry Ford, for example, or Franklin Delano Roosevelt or someone like Dale Carnegie. You can’t talk about the 20th century without talking about some of the figures who so decisively shaped not only the times but the thinking of the times. And when it comes to how Americans think, few people were so self-consciously involved in shaping that mind as was Dale Carnegie.

Professor Watts helped us to understand how biography also plays into the development of worldview. Here you have this boy born in bone-crushing poverty in rural Missouri who wants to make something of himself, who is at war on poverty in terms of his own mind, and a poverty he associated with spirit as well of substance. Then you have this story very paradigmatic of the 20th century, a kind of Horatio Alger tale, of a young man who leaves that very rural impoverished and goes to make his way in the world, and it just so happened at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century in modern America.

When we talk about modern America, it’s really only modern at about that point. As Professor Watts makes clear in his book, the great intellectual worldview turn even then was taking place in America: a turn in the late Victorian Age away from a worldview that had been explicitly founded upon Christian truth and upon Christian doctrine. A worldview that was very much accountable to scripture and to a very inherited worldview that basically stated that human beings… in terms of the Biblical anthropology… are to be understood as centers, and morality as understood as central to society and necessary for cultural cohesion, and a worldview in which the individual was important but important mostly in terms of the whole.

By the time you come to the early 20th century, a rugged individualism has taken place: an individualism that’s not just reflected in the fact that you have philosophies of individualism. You also have an economy of individualism. You have the economic self develop. You have not only psychological man, as Phillip Reeve described him; you have economic man and economic American, who all of a sudden emerges. You have modern advertising. As Professor Watts makes very clear, advertising in the past, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was basically about function. You needed to buy this because it would do that. But by the time you get to the early decades of the 20th century, advertising is about lifestyle aspiration. It’s about the invention of the self. Advertisers are not so much that you need this in order to do that, but that you need to be this kind of person and buying this product will make you the kind of person you want to be.

Of course, when you look at business culture you have the rise of the modern economy, where people are buying cars and leaving behind horses and they’re leaving behind an old world and entering into a new world and it just seemed to make sense to many people that you leave the old worldview behind with the technologies and the artifacts of that old world, especially if you’re someone like Dale Carnegie who associated that old world with bone-crushing poverty, and who saw the new world as a land of great and almost unlimited opportunity. On the other hand, when you look at the worldview issues that are involved, they’re monumental. They’re massive. They’re so consequential that intelligent Christians need to give a lot of attention to this. Even those modern American Christians, evangelicals who look at popular culture and try to understand it and understand there are deep ideological and worldview issues at stake, many of them are actually unaware of the kind of historical forces that shaped the modern world, or the post-modern world, as we now know it.

When you look at someone like Dale Carnegie, you have to look backwards. You can’t talk about someone like Dale Carnegie without talking about the rise of psychology, and you can’t talk about the rise of modern psychology without the rise of the new thought movement, which actually preceded it. That’s something that we have to keep in mind. The modern psychological development came after the development of new thought. That came first. Many people looking at so-called pop psychology think, “Psychology has come to this.” No, it was the new thought movement that got there before psychology, and that new thought movement was explicitly religious. As I said in my conversation with Professor Watts, it was Christian-ish in some sense. In other words, most of these movements had some link to Christianity. Even Mary Baker Eddy named her new thought movement Christian science, translating historical Christianity into this new modern mind science of her own design. Of course, you’re talking there about the influence once again of Phineas Quimby, who himself is inseparable from the story of Mary Baker Eddy.

But then he’s also inseparable from Dale Carnegie, and from the development of all that came thereafter. As we said, you can draw a line from Phineas Quimby eventually to Norman Vincent Peale and to that kind of positive thinking that invaded American theological circles and became very popular. So popular that you can draw a direct line from Norman Vincent Peale to Robert Schuller, who was in actuality his disciple. Then you can draw a line from both Norman Vincent Peale to Robert Schuller to Joel Osteen.

So when you turn on the television today, or when you look at the modern media, and you see the people who are very much on the American religious landscape today, there is a pedigree behind them. Part of that pedigree is Dale Carnegie.

One of the most interesting things to me in looking at the entire phenomenon of Dale Carnegie is how much of what he has written… for instance, in that bestselling book, How to Win Friends and Influence People… is just common sense, the kind of common sense people really do need to know. And yet, it is infused with so much manipulative self-worship, so much of the self-actualization philosophy, so much of the new age thinking, the new thought world, where you look at that and you recognize that there’s no way to separate the kernel and the husk. It’s all one thing.

That new thought worldview so pervades the entire system of thought that when you’re looking at Dale Carnegie or Joel Osteen or Robert Schuller or Norman Vincent Peale or Oprah Winfrey or Tony Robbins or any number of these people, you’re looking at more of a shared worldview than you’re looking at difference. You’re looking at more commonalities than you’re looking at distinctives. You’re looking at the fact that the basic break that was made in the inherited worldview was a break with the historic Christian understanding of the human being: the historic Christian Biblical anthropology. What is common to virtually all these people and the worldviews they represent is the rejection of that old Biblical anthropology and the embrace of a new understanding of human potential, of the centrality of the individual and the perfection of the personality, and the self as a project. That’s a very important issue. 

The Bible makes very clear that there is a proper individualism, in terms of our understanding that every single individual human being is made in God’s image. But that individualism is placed within the context of a Biblical worldview that puts severe limitations upon what we should expect in terms of the development of that individual self. The Bible does not present the self as a self-project, and that’s the great break. Most of the people we encounter in everyday life actually do think of their own life, their own self as a project: a project under their own control, under their own supervision, basically accountable to nothing other than their own self-actualization.

One of the main points made in the book and also in the conversation with Professor Watts is the point that was replaced in terms of this new science of the self was the old morality, because this new worldview displaced morality in favor of self-actualization, in favor of the goals and purposes of the self-projection, and with the confidence that the self could actually pull this off. Dale Carnegie himself believed that his own lifetime, his own life story validated his philosophy. Here you had this boy in crushing poverty who ends up on the bestseller list, writing one of the bestselling books in all of American history, and of course with the material benefits that came with it. The story of his personal life in terms of intimidate details is also recorded in this book, Self-Help Messiah, but the main story is the impact of Dale Carnegie on the large culture, and that story isn’t over. The books comes to a conclusion, and to his credit Professor Watts does give an evaluative critical conclusion.

I think most of us are going to want to take the points he raises there even further, because those of us who are operating from a Christian worldview understand that they’re actually very important at a more fundamental and even deeper level. Furthermore, when you read this book and the story of Dale Carnegie you know that personally his project is going to come to an end. His lifetime is going to come to an end. His death is recorded in this book. But if anything is made clear in terms of your reading of this story it will be this: the man has died, but his ideas live on. Dale Carnegie is a finished project, but Dale Carnegie’s ideas are now a part of millions of projects, individual projects of countless Americans and people around the world who consider themselves about the very same thing, following the very same goals, trying to use the very same techniques, trying to perfect and to project the self.

One final thought. In a world in which people are wondering if books still matter, just think about the impact of this one book: How to Win Friends and Influence People, now having sold so many millions of copies that it’s hard to even keep track. Imagine the impact of that book not only on the culture at large, but in countless millions, of individual lives.

Thanks for joining me today for Thinking in Public. For more information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to For information on Boyce College, go to Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.