Friday, April 27, 2007

The roots of failure

Misplaced in the kitchen gadget section of A Southern Season, I found an odd little thing: a large pink leather luggage badge with one word etched in white: “FAILURE.” (Misplaced also is the modifier in that sentence, making it sound as if I was misplaced in the gadget section of A Southern Season, which, no doubt, I was.) I guess someone had picked it up in another part of the store and thought better of it. In a world of black bags and endless streams of them on the airport carousel, it is a good idea to mark your own, not that I’ve gotten around to it. But there could be understandable ambivalence about labeling yourself a failure, even if it’s obviously a joke.

How interesting to learn, in a review of Born Losers: A History of Failure in America (Harvard 2005), that "[b]efore the Civil War 'failure' described a business in peril, not a person." From the prologue,

Businessmen dominate this story because their loss of money and manhood drove legislative, commercial, and cultural solutions that redefined failure: from the lost capital of a bankruptcy to the lost chances of a wasted life. This shift from ordeal to identity expanded the constituency of failure. Women, workers, and African Americans were put on notice: ruin was no longer just for white businessmen. As the twentieth century dawned, popular magazines were enlivened by "Frank Confessions from Men and Women who Missed Success." The Cosmopolitan named "The Fear of Failure" as the bane of "many a young man and woman." Correspondence schools taunted laborers to escape "the treadmill positions of life." Upon founding the National Negro Business League, Booker T. Washington urged that "more attention . . . be directed to [Negroes] who have succeeded, and less to those who have failed." By 1900, anybody could end up "a 'Nobody,'" plodding down the "many paths leading to the Land of 'Nowhere.'" Failure had become what it remains in the new millennium: the most damning incarnation of the connection between achievement and personal identity. "I feel like a failure." The expression comes so naturally that we forget it is a figure of speech: the language of business applied to the soul.

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