In the mid-1930s, slumped deep in economic depression and faced with ever-worsening news from Europe, Americans turned to self-help with a sharp new thirst. The decade, bookended by the Crash and the War, was a period of seeking, searching and struggling, as is clear from the titles turned bromides like How to Win Friends and Influence People and Life Begins at Forty that still pepper our vocabulary. The decade’s most successful self-help books emphasized the power of the mind and the will to rise above the burden of circumstance. Unable to stabilize the market or the world, readers turned inward and saw themselves anew—as fixable machines, captives of an unbridled will or endlessly renewable resources.
In his first inaugural address in March 1933—the speech in which he asserted that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”—President Franklin Roosevelt articulated a basic tenet of self-help: the decade’s problems, he suggested, were as much in people’s heads as in their pocketbooks. Happiness could be found “in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort,” rather than “in the mere possession of money,” and should be understood as a private process rather than a matter of public profit. Successful self-help authors likewise worked to convince readers that they could take power into their own hands, which were not tied by economic circumstances or political realities. That the genre experienced a boom during the politically turbulent 1930s was not a coincidence, but rather a consequence of that turbulence. Despite Roosevelt’s urging that happiness was separate from “the mad chase of evanescent profits” and could be achieved by the power of the mind, self-help would align most powerfully in the decade not with popular democracy but with the politics of fascism.
The extension of the vote to women and Native Americans in the 1920s, the rabble-rousing of populists like Huey Long, and the vastly expanded use of radio to promote political messages, from FDR’s fireside chats to Father Coughlin’s pro-fascist broadcasts—all of these made national politics during the Depression a feature of daily life, and extreme circumstances encouraged extremist philosophies. While the number of Americans who became card-carrying Communists or self-proclaimed fascists remained small, the threats those movements implied—foreign infiltration, forced redistribution of wealth, insurrection, coup d’état—loomed over the decade. As these mass movements threatened to subjugate the individual will, the soul of American identity, self-help offered a way to shore up that will by reconnecting the people with their exceptional natures. For self-help gurus and their acolytes, individual success represented an antidote to mass politics and a promise of stability amid the chaos.
Dorothea Brande’s 1936 guide Wake Up and Live!, which will be reissued by Penguin in September ($15.95), was a slim, simple work of pop psychology that advocated a radically individualistic form of self-improvement. It urged readers to place their own success above all other commitments and to train their mind to overcome the fear of failure. The simple yet elusive formula that made Wake Up and Live! a bestseller—“Act as if it were impossible to fail”—held great attraction for those who felt powerless. It was both heroic and hubristic in its suggestion that failure could be outsmarted; and at a time when the word “failure” was so often yoked to the word “bank” (some 9,000 American banks failed between the 1929 crash and the establishment of the FDIC in 1933), it determinedly wrested power out of the hands of institutions and gave it back to individuals. Brande drew her terminology of the competing “Will to Live” and “Will to Fail” from Nietzsche and pointedly observed that her program took “superhuman strength of character.” It relied on the illusion that an unfair world is a level playing field, on which winners and losers compete on an equal basis, unconstrained by gender, race, class, money or ability.