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Nowhere man

Dreamers, suckers, and other misfits get their day in an extensive, exuberant survey of business busts through the 19th century

Born Losers: A History of Failure in America
By Scott A. Sandage
Harvard University, 362 pp., illustrated, $35

How's it going? In much of our country the answer is a reflexive ''Great." (Well, maybe not on the Maine coast or a few other spots less receptive to the national upbeat.) In much of the Spanish-speaking world the answer is a skeptical ''Por ahi andamos," or ''There or thereabouts."

Hubris to the Greeks was a vaunting of one's condition, and it invited retribution by the gods. With us, largely, it is the failure to vaunt that might call them down. ''Loser" is our ultimate curse; what ''scoundrel" once was, even though for much of human history losing was more or less the course of life -- on this earth, at least -- and it was pride, not humility, that went before a fall.

To the Democrats, November seemed more than a loss; it felt like obliteration, and though there were also objective reasons for this, part of it was an instinctive sense that loss is obliteration. Sports is not always the universal American metaphor: Football's fade-back is intrinsic to the forward pass, but sometimes it seems as though American self-regard had no place for it.

Such thoughts thread through ''Born Losers," explicitly or by the further thoughts it incites in the reader. Scott Sandage, a history professor at Carnegie Mellon University, has centered his book in an extensive documentation of how individual Americans failed in business through the 19th century, and what such failure meant to them, in an era when success went from being an individual affair to a national and social ethic.

Among his many specifics: In the 1828 edition of Webster's dictionary one particular definition of ''failure" was ''a breaking or becoming insolvent." Only by 1857 did it tie this same definition to ''some weakness in a man's character, disposition, or habit." Misfortune was becoming shame. Failure was being redefined, as Sandage puts it, ''from the lost capital of a bankruptcy to the lost chances of a wasted life."

''Born Losers" is a panoply of voices. One set, at the heart of the book, is the reports of agents of the early credit bureaus. The pioneer was the Mercantile Agency, founded in 1841 by Lewis Tappan, a prominent abolitionist and a founder of Oberlin College (doing well, in songwriter Tom Lehrer's words, by doing good -- not uncommon in the pieties of capitalism's early days). An ancestor of Dun and Bradstreet, it collected in huge red ledgers information about businessmen all over the country, largely for the use of suppliers extending credit to them.

It came to use some 2,000 correspondents -- young Abraham Lincoln was one -- men of some prominence in their communities and with knowledge, presumably, of their neighbors. Their comments went beyond the subjects' commercial activities; they included personal gossip, moral assessments, and the like. One merchant's adulteries and a prospective divorce action by his wife were reported; of another firm, the comment read: ''The whole lot of the 'W[eatherby]s' are Bad Eggs." ''Tight as the bark on a black gum," went another, presumably laudatory.

It was an outlook, as Sandage writes, that estimated risk in terms of identity and partook of the era's developing moral judgment on success and failure. It was an exceedingly narrow judgment. The abolitionist William Henry Brisbane, who courted ruin by buying slaves and freeing them, is summed up in an agency report: ''never succeeded at anything." ''If red books did not tell the whole story," Sandage comments, ''they told stories that would sell."

Along with the voices of the judges there are those of the ''failures." ''Born Losers" quotes from the many tens of thousands of letters to John D. Rockefeller appealing for help. The men's letters, he notes, were bluff, man-to-man requests for a new start; the wives, proudly noting that their husbands were too proud to ask, dwelt graphically on misfortune. Underneath, virtually all breathed an abject shame.

Nowadays, along with soaring consumer debt and job downsizing, the disgrace attached to business failure seems less acute. Failure itself, though, has not lost its old stigma. At Henry David Thoreau's funeral, his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson could not refrain from lamenting the lack of ambition of a man who could have been an engineer or a general but remained no more than ''the captain of a huckleberry-party." As for Thoreau, he said, before his funeral, of course: ''From the deepest pit we may see the stars, if not the sun."

Sandage is on Thoreau's side. His book, restless, stuffed with citations (and overstuffed), and sometimes stretching a point, a connection, or a bit of wordplay, suffers from exuberance but profits far more by it. It is irrepressible and deeply serious, asking an old question in fresh form: whether our doctrine of equal opportunity and success to the best condemns everyone else to an unending sense of failure.

Richard Eder reviews books for several publications.

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