Self-help authors like Tom Peters and Stephen Covey, who have dominated best-seller lists over the last two decades, have exercised increasing influence on political, governmental, and educational organizations. By contrast, the topic of American success books— texts that promise to help readers succeed by retrofitting their identity to meet workplace demands—has been ignored by scholars since the 1980s. John Ramage challenges the neglect of this hugely popular literature and revives a once-lively conversation among eminent critics about the social phenomenon represented in the work of Bruce Barton, Dale Carnegie, and Norman Vincent Peale, among others.
Using literary texts from Don Quixote to Catch-22 to gloss the discussion, Ramage utilizes Kenneth Burke’s rhetorical theory to understand symbolic acts and social issues and brings together earlier commentaries within a new critical framework. He considers the problematic and paradoxical nature of success and examines its meaning in terms of its traditional dialectic partner, happiness. A synopsis of seventeenth- to nineteenth-century forerunners prefaces this analysis in which Ramage links literary code heroes with the activities of twentieth-century business leaders to determine whether, in the search for authenticity, the heroic individual or the corporation is ultimately served.
This comprehensive study chronicles the legitimation of the success book genre, enumerates rhetorical strategies used to win over readers, and supplies the historical context that renders each book’s message timely. After considering some of the dangers of crossing disciplinary borders, as exemplified by Deborah Tannen’s work, Ramage critiques Stanley Fish’s theoretical strictures against this practice, finally summoning academic critics to action with a strong call to exert greater influence within the popular marketplace.