In the past year, two University of Missouri professors have published biographies of influential men. Steven Watts explores how a Missouri farm boy came to launch the modern self-help movement in “Self-Help Messiah, Dale Carnegie and Success in Modern America.” And Jonathan Sperber takes a fresh look at a man who has inspired revolutions around the globe, in his book “Karl Marx, a Nineteenth Century Life.”
By Watts’ account, nothing in Dale Carnegie’s childhood indicated the path he’d take as an adult. Born to an impoverished farm couple in Maryville, Missouri in 1888, his childhood was filled with religious instruction and manual labor. Not until he went to college and became involved in theater did his charisma manifest. The speaking skills he developed helped him in a series of sales jobs, which in turn provided him with insights into human motivation. Eventually he would lead a self-help empire. The franchise of leadership courses he began is still in business today, while his 1936 book “How to Win Friends and Influence People” remains a popular-selling title. Opinion over Carnegie’s methods has been divided. Where some see self-improvement and empowerment, others see manipulation and a promotion of personality over character. But nobody can deny he had a large hand in shaping the culture Americans know today.
To a more extreme degree, Karl Marx has also been both revered and reviled throughout the years, a fact that speaks to the level of his influence in the world. With Friedrich Engels, Marx co-authored “The Communist Manifesto.” Sperber places Marx in a historical context, examining what effect the French Revolution, for example, had on his work. But Sperber expands beyond the political lens and provides a view of many other aspects of Marx’s life, which began in 1818 in Trier, Germany. So we see not only a political firebrand, but also a son, husband and father, as well as a man with chronic money troubles.
Each biography shows a man who was a product of his time. As much as both men shaped the culture, the ability to do so came by virtue of having been born in the right epochs. Dale Carnegie, the man, could have lived any time, any place. Dale Carnegie, the phenomenon, could not have existed without the advent of mass communication. And had Karl Marx been born into a society of widespread peace and prosperity, the world would not have had Marxism, the political movement.