Josh Ozersky, in his earnest Colonel Sanders and the American Dream, stresses at the outset his alarm over the fact that a growing number of Americans don't realise that unlike Uncle Ben - in fact unlike any other such marketing creation - Colonel Sanders was a real person, not a corporate creation. And not only a real person, an exemplar: "More than almost anyone in the hagiographic literature of American business, he truly lived the American Dream."
Ozersky's book is part of the University of Texas Press's Discovering America series, which operates on the premise that much of US history still remains to be written and sets out to tell the peculiar and perhaps illustrative side stories that get lost in the drama of wars and westward expansion. But since the food company that Colonel Sanders founded, Kentucky Fried Chicken - KFC - has a worldwide reach (more than 15,000 outlets in more than 100 countries), it's incumbent on Ozersky to do a little clarifying about that central conceit of his book - just what is the American Dream?
He rejects the simple definition: "Often it is used to describe hard work leading to fortune, but there is nothing especially American about that; that is the Protestant work ethic wrapped in a flag," he writes. Instead, he digs deeper: "The phrase 'American Dream' was coined specifically to describe a state of egalitarian opportunity, a novus orbis where a man might transcend his roots and create himself as he saw fit." Our author's main contention in this energetic little book is that people shouldn't forget that Harlan Sanders was a real person, because forgetting that fact would drastically lessen the heroism of the man's personal journey from obscure beginnings to global figure.
Harlan Sanders was born in 1890 to a farmer in rural southern Indiana. The oldest of three children, Harlan lost his father at age five and in the years that followed became by necessity his mother's chief support in helping the family to survive. "No one can fully appreciate the Colonel's life and character," Ozersky claims, "without understanding how desperate and how unexceptional his mother's situation was." Young Harlan got a variety of menial jobs but aspired to more.
This aspiration led to a brief stint as a lawyer - a stretch that ended when Sanders got into a fight with his own client in the courts. He went back to menial work, pulling double shifts on the railways to support his new wife and family, until he landed a job selling insurance. He was sacked twice from that job, and a spate of similar non-starters followed, from selling tyres to backing the manufacture of acetylene lamps. Eventually, he ended up in Corbin, Kentucky, running a petrol station and it was there he had the idea of making a little money on the side by serving homemade food to paying customers. The idea was just the latest in Sanders' long line of business schemes, and like all of them, it was a long shot: "It was a gas station with some rooms attached, in a backward corner of a backward state, in the grip of the Depression, and it was a desperate undertaking, like most small businesses were at that place and time."
Through dint of unrelenting effort and lots of luck (and plenty of trial-and-error experimentation with the pressure cooking he used to prepare his birds), it worked: Sanders eventually expanded his little restaurant, making first one, then two, then a few franchise deals to sell his meals around the state - deals that were sealed with a handshake and gave him a nickel profit on every chicken. As Ozersky puts it: "Kentucky Fried Chicken was built on the efforts of one old man tirelessly driving around to back-road diners nearly as decrepit as himself."