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.
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Brande’s belief that success proved superiority was a popular theory. Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich, from 1937, also urged readers to succeed by overcoming their fear of failure. Hill’s ideas grew out of the multifaceted New Thought movement, which had long promoted the power of the mind to bring about material goals, like making money and curing sickness. The New Thought movement originated in the nineteenth century with the teachings of Phineas P. Quimby, a Maine clockmaker who became fascinated by mesmerism, hypnotism and the healing power of the mind (Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy was his patient and student). The movement was highly individualistic—a swirling of ideas derived from Emerson and the Transcendentalists, the eighteenth-century mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, and a loosely conceived “Eastern” spirituality—as well as a reaction against the scientific empiricism of the Enlightenment.
Above all, New Thought sought to restore the human mind to power. Hill’s book, which advocated mind-control techniques such as visualization and autosuggestion to bring about wealth and power, was based on the retrospective reasoning of those who were already successful and believed that they had achieved this solely through their extraordinary mental prowess. Hill claimed to have analyzed over a hundred American millionaires, having parlayed a chance encounter with Andrew Carnegie into access to the industrial titans of his day, who were more than happy to reflect on how their personal fortitude had propelled them to prosperity. Think and Grow Rich mystified their road to riches in a way that both intrigued and frustrated its readers, promising a “secret” that the book never really explains beyond urging them to cultivate a “burning desire” for success. More than 15 million people bought it anyway—almost as many as have bought into the twenty-first century’s New Thought phenomenon, Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, since 2006. Byrne’s secret is similarly vague. She claims that a “law of attraction” governs the universe and shapes our lives, and that by banishing negative thinking and training our minds to visualize our material desires, we can “attract” what we want. The Secret became a hit after extensive promotion by Oprah Winfrey, but it was later criticized for its pseudoscientific claims, lack of evidence (only Byrne herself seemed to have mastered the law of attraction for material gain) and implicit victim-blaming—if positive thinking could cure cancer, as the book suggests, then presumably those who died of the disease failed to properly visualize recovery.
Although Dorothea Brande does reveal and repeat her formula for success, it remains unclear exactly what it means or how it works. Like political slogans, New Thought–inflected formulas appeal to desire and fear rather than reason. As historian Stephen Recken notes, “words such as power, mastery, and control dominated the literature of the movement”—and spoke directly to a readership that lacked those very things. Filtered through the self-help of writers like Hill and Brande, these ideas promised to liberate readers from the deterministic forces of the economy. There is nothing democratic about 1930s self-help, no sense that it might be possible to better yourself by working to improve everyone’s collective lot. In a political climate fearful of the spread of communism among the “inferior” or disenfranchised masses, the call to rise above, rather than strive together, was especially powerful.
The will-to-success books, then as now, existed alongside self-help guides that preached satisfaction over status and pleasure over power. They also suggested you were alone in your quest. Live Alone and Like It, the 1936 guide by Vogue features editor Marjorie Hillis, encouraged its single-woman readers to build happy, independent lives but warned at the outset that this would take “will-power” and was a solitary pursuit: “When you live alone, practically nobody arranges practically anything for you.” The bible of the positive psychology movement, Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, would not be published until 1952, but he started airing his radio show, The Art of Living, in 1935. On it he promoted ideas that drew heavily on New Thought, autosuggestion and the belief that the mind was more powerful than external reality—especially if that reality was unpleasant. Although Dale Carnegie’s 1936 bestseller How to Win Friends and Influence People offered social rewards over riches, it strongly hinted that professional success and power would follow. The author clearly took his own advice seriously, reinventing the spelling of his own name, from “Carnagey” to “Carnegie,” in order to imply a relationship to Napoleon Hill’s hero.
According to 1930s self-help guides, the costs of failing to conform to the self-improvement imperative were severe: they were an admission that you were one of society’s losers. The conviction that white American society was in decline was common in the 1930s, a basic tenet of the overlapping work of fascists and eugenicists. Writers like Brande accordingly urged their readers to pursue success in order to separate themselves from the herd of nobodies. The prolific Walter B. Pitkin, author of Life Begins at 40, was one of many who imagined a society divided into an elite and an underclass: his 1935 book Capitalism Carries On envisioned that society as a series of endless improvement workshops, “where the skilled and the experienced tinker with the clumsy, the young, the senile, the malicious, and the pathological precisely as mechanics now tinker with automobiles.” Brande devotes a full chapter of Wake Up and Live! to identifying the numerous and various types of failures, including the seemingly innocuous “embroiderers and knitters,” “aimless conversationalists,” and “takers of eternal post-graduate courses.” There is no call here to “tinker” with the less fortunate: the best you can do is urge them to buy the book.
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Dorothea Brande is now best remembered for her 1934 book Becoming a Writer, a briskly pragmatic guide to literary success, but in her own time she was also well known as the wife of Seward Collins, one of the leading proponents of American fascism. In the middle of the decade, she worked alongside her husband on his right-wing political journal The American Review, regularly contributing articles as she developed her self-help theories. Collins, unlike Brande, was born into money and used it to shortcut Dale Carnegie, buying friends and influencing people. When he moved to New York after Princeton, he also used it to amass a vast collection of erotica that was his pride and obsession. He bought the respected literary periodical The Bookman in 1927, where Brande first came to work for him, and his cultural influence grew within a circle of friends that included Edmund Wilson and F. Scott Fitzgerald. He had a disastrous affair with Dorothy Parker at the same time, when his politics were quite different: ”I ran off to the Riviera with a Trotskyite,” she later recalled.
When he abandoned The Bookman to start The American Review, Collins’s politics had turned from Trotskyite to Tory, and he published the English conservatives Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton alongside Allen Tate and other Southern Agrarians. Nostalgia for a lost rural past was a central theme of American conservative thought and a driving force behind several self-help bestsellers of the 1930s, chief among them Lin Yutang’s The Importance of Living (1937), which presented a mythical Chinese village as the model for contented living. Brande seems to have shared with her husband a suspicion of urban cosmopolitanism, and her writing in The American Review energetically denounced modernist literary culture. In a 1933 review of Q.D. Leavis’s Fiction and the Reading Public, Brande presents herself as one exhausted by the age: “sick to death of anti-religious prejudice, of subversive social and moral standards, of records of family hatred and morbid self-expression.” Casting euphemism aside, her review of a literary anthology by the Jewish critic Ludwig Lewisohn argues that the kind of “stupidities” that “abound” in the book were not only written by “members of Mr. Lewisohn’s race,” but “come to us oftenest and in their most extreme form from Jewish writers,” a fact that “cannot be denied.” Anti-Semitism was a deeply rooted infection in 1930s America; by itself it was no reliable indicator of fascist political sympathies, but in combination with anti-modernism, nationalist nostalgia and elitism, it became a key ingredient in the kind of fascism promoted by The American Review.
After 1933, Seward Collins swung further rightward, praising Mussolini and Hitler for their defeat of communism and writing regularly in praise of authoritarian leadership. Pressure from Jewish groups and his own disenchanted writers—as well as an embarrassing interview in the left-wing magazine FIGHT, in which Collins both declared himself a fascist and railed against indoor plumbing—led him to close The American Review in 1937. In its place he opened a bookshop for right-wing publications, which was later alleged to have been a meeting place for Nazi sympathizers, although it seems to have been more shabby than sinister. Collins and Brande went on to become increasingly fascinated by the occult and paranormal; Brande trained as a medium, and the couple were closely associated with London’s Society for Psychical Research. Despite her political commitment to Christianity, Brande shows no sign of having believed in the orthodoxy of heaven: Wake Up and Live! is driven by the urgent, fervid belief that the reader has only one life to live, so that even sleep is a waste of precious hours.
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The murky history of American fascism is populated with bizarre characters, and Seward Collins is by no means its most eccentric. Lawrence Dennis, the author of 1936’s The Coming American Fascism, could have been a poster child for ruthless self-improvement and Brande’s Nietzschean “will to succeed.” A Southern-born black man who gained fame as a boy preacher, Dennis cut all ties with his roots to move north, attend Exeter and Harvard, and pass for the rest of his life as white. Like Seward Collins, he advocated the need for a new elite to run the country, armed with what his biographer, Gerald Horne, calls the “firepower of intelligence rather than complexion.” Dennis was motivated by both anti-communism and anti-capitalism, denouncing the corruption of Wall Street’s (Jewish) bankers in the pages of The New Republic and The Nation as well as The Awakener, where he was an editor, and which shared offices with a thinly disguised Italian fascist propaganda agency. If reinventing yourself through the power of mind and indomitable will, costs be damned, was a path to success, then Dennis embodied the parallel faiths of 1930s New Thought self-help and right-wing politics.
However, the entwining of those faiths had yet to find its most influential figure—in the 1930s, she was just beginning her long climb to the apex of the American quasi-fascist self-help philosophy. Alisa Rosenbaum, the Russian immigrant who would reinvent herself as Ayn Rand, goddess of the American right wing, published her first novel, We the Living, in 1936. Rand recognized that self-help relied on the power of the imagination and that fiction could be an even more powerful means to advance an ideology. She offered not formulas but role models, encouraging readers to identify with her lonely, brilliant industrialists hamstrung by the idiocies of lesser men. Wildly elaborated versions of the “case studies” that supported the arguments of Norman Vincent Peale, Napoleon Hill and Dorothea Brande, these characters represented the potential of a self-selected, self-centered elite, propelled to power by genius alone. Her novels dramatize the conflict between the successes and the failures, the exceptional individuals and the lazy, dangerous masses, in such a way that the reader need never actually prove the theory in his or her own life … which, in the end, became self-help’s most compelling story of all.