064: Scott A. Sandage, 43

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: Associate Professor, Department of History, Carnegie Mellon University
Area of Research: Cultural and Nineteenth Century American History.
Education: Ph.D. Department of History, Rutgers University, 1995
Major Publications: Sandage is the author of Born Losers: A History of Failure in America (Harvard University Press, 2005), which was awarded the 34th Annual Thomas J. Wilson Prize, for the best “first book” accepted by Harvard press. The paperback edition was published in 2006; a Japanese translation was released in 2007, and there are forthcoming translations in Chinese and Taiwanese, 2007-2008.
Scott A. Sandage JPG His abridgement of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America has just been published by HarperPerennial Modern Classics. His next book project, Half-Breed Creek: A Tall Tale of Race on the Frontier, 1800-1941, focuses on mixed-blood Native Americans to show how family folklore has shaped racial identity in the United States. Sandage is also the author or numerous journal articles and book chapters including: “The Gilded Age,” in A Companion to American Cultural History, ed. Karen Halttunen (London: Blackwell, forthcoming August 2007), and “A Marble House Divided: The Lincoln Memorial, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Politics of Memory, 1939-1963,” Journal of American History, 80 (June 1993): 135-167; reprinted in Reynolds J. Scott-Childress, ed., Race and the Production of Modern American Nationalism (Garland, 1999), 273-311; and Charles Payne and Adam Green, eds., Time Longer than Rope: A Century of African American Activism, 1850-1950 (NYU Press, 2003), 492-535.
Awards: Sandage is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including among others:
Elliot Dunlop Smith Award for Distinguished Teaching and Educational Service, Carnegie Mellon University, 2006;
Thomas J. Wilson Prize, for the best first book accepted by Harvard University Press in the calendar year, 2003;
Finalist, Elliot Dunlop Smith Award for Outstanding Educational Service, CMU, 2001;
Outstanding Faculty Member Award 2000-2001, CMU Greek Council;
Dissertation Award, Northeastern Association of Graduate Schools, for best dissertation, 1995-96;
Finalist, Allan Nevins Dissertation Prize, Society of American Historians, 1995-1996;
Louis Pelzer Memorial Award, Organization of American Historians, “Marble House Divided,” best graduate student article, 1993;
Bryant Spann Memorial Prize, Eugene V. Debs Foundation, “A Marble House Divided,” best article on social justice, 1992. National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, 2007-2008;
Humanities Instructional Software Initiative, Office of Technology for Education, Carnege Mellon, 2001-2002;
J. Franklin Jameson Fellowship in American History, American Historical Association and Library of Congress, 1997-1998;
National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Stipend, 1998;
CMU Faculty Development Fund, 1997-1999;
Falk Fellowship Fund in the Humanities, CMU, 1996, 2003;
Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in History, Society of Fellows in the Humanities, Columbia University, New York, N.Y., 1995-1996;
Smithsonian Institution Research Fellowship, National Museum of American History, Washington, D.C., 1996;
NEH Dissertation Grant, 1994-1995;
Littleton-Griswold Grant for Research in American Legal History, American Historical Association, 1994;
Mellon-Christian Fellowship in Business and Economic History, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, Va., 1993, 1994.
Additional Info:
Sandage is active as a public historian, he has been a consultant to the Smithsonian Institution, the National Archives, the National Park Service, an off-Broadway play, and film and radio documentaries.
In 1999-2000, he chaired a panel of historians to choose an inscription for the wheelchair sculpture belatedly added to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial.
He is co-editor of the “American History and Culture” book series for New York University Press.
His commentaries have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Industry Standard, and Fast Company Magazine, among other mainstream periodicals.

Personal Anecdote

Three days before HNN informed me of this recognition, an e-mail query arrived from a scholar writing about failure and depression – the emotional kind. Did I have any thoughts on connections between them?

The truth is, such thoughts clouded much of the decade between earning my Ph.D. in 1995 and publishing Born Losers in 2005. Anyone who can count will see that gaping hole in my résumé, and anyone who knows me even distantly will vouch that I was barely seen or heard from for years. In the time span I took writing just one volume, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote all of Lord of the Rings.

Historians remember each other as much by topic as by name. “Whatever happened to that failure guy?” Everybody loved my topic; it had gotten me grants and a good job. Early on, colleagues ribbed me, “If you fail to finish your book, you’ll really have succeeded, right?” When they stopped kidding me entirely, it was no joke anymore.

The life crises of my thirties were no worse than anybody else’s. My 15-year relationship ended, a close friend died young, the puppy I got while writing my dissertation died old. A bewhiskered faculty mentor spun horror stories of promising historians who were denied tenure and now taught 6/6. To paraphrase my dad’s old suppertime rant: somewhere there were starving adjuncts who would just love to have my job.

I found a groovy Jungian shrink who burned incense during sessions – a barefoot hippie chick who helped me a lot, and I went on meds. The book just went on. The longer it took, the worse I felt, the better it had to be. I read somewhere that Niall Ferguson was born on April 18, 1964 – same day and year as I was.

Having created the monster that ate up my thirties, I managed to kill it a few months before turning forty. When my tenure case went through, my college Dean winked about “a last-minute reprieve from the Governor.” People started kidding me again.

My favorite review of Born Losers opened with a blunt acknowledgement that “delays in [the book's] appearance fanned fears that Sandage, like many of his book’s characters, might himself fail in his undertaking.” I did fail, of course, just as anyone who tries to explain the past must fail. I took too long to understand that failure was no excuse for not finishing.

After discussing my depression in an NPR interview about the book, I got a lot of unexpected mail from people with their own failure stories. Evidently, it helped to know that Born Losers was not the work of some ivory professor impressed by his own success.

The foregoing should raise questions about naming me to any “top” list, but I am grateful to be called “young” and happier still to feel that way again. Replying to last week’s query about depression and failure, I thumbed Born Losers and was shocked to discover that I omitted that angle entirely. Go figure.

Quotes

By Scott Sandage

  • Born Losers: A History of Failure in America JPG The promise of America is that nobody is born to lose, but who has never wondered, “Am I wasting my life?” We imagine escaping the mad scramble yet kick ourselves for lacking drive. Low ambition offends Americans even more than low achievement…. Failure conjures such vivid pictures of lost souls that it is hard to imagine a time, before the Civil War, when the word meant “breaking in business” – going broke. How did it become a name for a deficient self, an identity in the red? Why do we manage identity the way we run our businesses – by investment, risk, profit, and loss? — Scott A. Sandage in “Born Losers: A History of Failure in America”
  • About Scott A. Sandage

  • “In this book about the cultural ramifications of economic failure in nineteenth-century America, Sandage has taken on an important and underexamined subject and scrutinized it in inventive ways, using unexpected and largely unmined sources.” — Benjamin Schwarz, Atlantic Monthly
  • 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).” — James Grant, “Wall Street Journal”
  • “By examining the lives and careers of a number of businessmen who failed during the 19th century, [Sandage] portrays what we reflexively think of as the darker 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… For the most part Born Losers is readable, interesting and thoroughly researched…We understand the human side of failure far more keenly than we did a couple of centuries ago, but we still fear it and still believe–against all the evidence–that somehow we can and will escape it.” — Jonathan Yardley, “Washington Post”
  • “In Scott Sandage’s provocative new study, Born Losers, the Carnegie Mellon University professor notes that not long ago, ‘loser’ meant only that a person had lost money or a house. It described an event; it didn’t declare a person completely worthless. His study examines how we came to make that change, how we internalized it and enshrined it in our culture…Sandage has mined a dark, rich vein, and, as in his deeply felt epilogue, he can write with great compassion.” — Jerome Weeks, “Dallas Morning News”
  • “The book presents a convincing argument and is winningly alive to literary parallels–success may be the grand theme of American history, but failures, from Bartleby through Gatsby to Willy Loman, dominate its literature.” — Robert Hanks, “Daily Telegraph”
  • “Drawing on a prodigious amount of research into two centuries of diaries, self-help books, credit reports and legal cases, Sandage paints a portrait gallery of American ‘broken men, down-and-outers, no-accounts, third-raters, small fries, small potatoes,…ne’er-do-wells (and) nobodies.’” — Andrew Stark, “Times Literary Supplement”
  • “Sandage’s book is a rich and fascinating exposition of how failure, once deemed an accident of fortune, has been turned into an ontological category, an explanation of fate based on an essence of the individual, an intangible identity bequeathed at birth. It is a harsh and cruel judgment, usually disguised as condescension or pity. For children and teenagers, it is a taunt–Loser!–that consigns the designee to hell…This is the sort of deeply critical and deeply caring book that is too seldom seen in cultural studies…You cannot come away from this elegant book without a heightened awareness of the devastating costs of the go-ahead mandate for the downsized corporate executive, the bank teller denied a promotion year after year, the college graduate struggling to spring loose of internships to land a real job.” — Christine Stansell, “New Republic”
  • 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.” — William S. McFeely, author of “Grant: a Biography”
  • “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.” — Michael Kazin, author of “The Populist Persuasion: An American History”
  • “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.” — Arthur Miller
  • “The only person I can think of like Scott Sandage is Robin Williams from Dead Poet’s Society. He is the type of teacher that really understands what it means to teach. We all should be so lucky to have a professor that is knowledgeable and wise as Scott Sandage. His class has been a life-changing experience.”… “Amazing lecturer. Very charismatic and gets the class very involved in discussions. Is always very interested in student input and does his best to make sure that you take away from the course. Try to take a course with him if at all possible.”… “Awesome class! He shows a lot of enthusiasm for what he teaches. One of the most enjoyable classes at CMU.”… “truly inspirational, excellent professor, probably the best at CMU”… “Scott was the best history professor I’ve ever had. His classes are very compelling and always interesting.”… “Brilliant lecturer. Very generous with his time. One of the best professors I’ve ever taken. Highly recommended.”… “fantastic teaching style, and sometimes even brings his dog to class.” — Anonymous Students
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