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Press Release

Jonathan Potts

For immediate release:
November 18, 2004

Carnegie Mellon Professor Is Winner with His Book on Losers

Associate Professor of History Scott Sandage's book, "Born Losers," won the prestigious Thomas J. Wilson Memorial Prize.
PITTSBURGH—The Harvard University Press has awarded its prestigious Thomas J. Wilson Memorial Prize to Scott Sandage, an associate professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University, for his book "Born Losers: A History of Failure in America." The award is given every year to a first-time author whose book is deemed outstanding in content, style and presentation. The book is tentatively scheduled to be published by Harvard University Press on January 30, 2005.

"Born Losers" is a study of how Americans define failure and how that definition has changed over the past 200 years. During the 18th century, according to Sandage, society viewed failure as something that happened to people in their careers because of errors in judgment or external events. Now, people blame failure on character flaws, and failure has become part of the individual's very identity. The growth of capitalism during the 19th century fostered the idea that every part of a person's life could follow a business model, thus precipitating a transformation in how society regarded failure. Hence, terms that once referred exclusively to the world of business and finance, such as "third-rate," became metaphors for personal failings, Sandage said.

"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," said famed playwright Arthur Miller, whose "Death of a Salesman" is cited in Sandage's book.

In the 20th century, words like "failure" and "loser" were applied so broadly that they lost all meaning, Sandage said. A teenager is a failure if he doesn't score high enough on the SAT, and we refer to the Columbine killers as losers.

"Failure is now a crime in America, even though we say failure is necessary. One of the ways we talk about the worst people in society is calling them a loser, a failure," Sandage said.

Sandage said he was drawn to failure, so to speak, because it is a subject that has been largely ignored by cultural historians, who have dwelled instead on the bright side of the American dream—the pursuit of financial success and the accumulation of material goods. Success, Sandage said, has become such a part of our collective identity that any accomplishment that falls short of expectations is deemed a failure. "That fact that you aren't a winner, or that you aren't on top, or that you aren't first, imputes some kind of deficiency," he said.


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