January 13, 1832 – Horatio Alger, Jr.
He may not exactly be a household name these days, but Horatio Alger was responsible for defining and enshrining one of the great values that Americans hold most strongly.
Alger’s stories have become synonymous with “rags-to-riches”, but a typical Alger plot is that a rich older man notices a plucky orphaned lad, witnesses his act of bravery or honor, and sets him up with a decent low-level job in a company, giving him security but not wealth. Often the older man gets the boy to live with him. Alger’s themes have been transformed in modern America from their original meanings into a sort of male Cinderella myth. Each story has its clever hero, its “fairy godmother”, and obstacles and hindrances to the hero’s rise. The Alger hero achieves the American Dream, gaining a position of middle-class respectability that promises to lead wherever his drive may take him.
Alger was the son of a Unitarian minister and a Unitarian minister himself. He was kicked out of his post in the face of allegations of homosexuality after it was discovered he was having sex with teenage males. Church officials claimed that he had committed the “most heinous crime, a crime of no less magnitude than the abominable and revolting crime of unnatural familiarity with boys.” Because of those circumstances, Alger went on to write what many would call the definitive patriotic literature, rags-to-riches stories that gave the original shape to that goal for which we all strive: “The American Dream”. I still hear the right wingers describe someone as a “real Horatio Alger Story”. I wonder if they know his story.
Alger was the master of the “dime novel” in the mid-19th century. He churned out dozens of almost identical tales: a young, poverty-stricken boy is alone in the big, cold city. He works harder than the other shoeshine boys or newsboys and saves every penny, while the other boys gamble and drink and waste their money on trivial pursuits. The boy meets a wealthy older businessman, who recognizes the lad’s ethic and pluck and the intelligence in his sad eyes, and then takes him under his wing. Soon the boy has money of his own, responsibility and a better life.
Alger was pretty plucky himself. He started at Harvard at 16 years old where he studied with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. By his late teens, he had written several books for children. After being dismissed from his church, he moved to New York City, because that is what a young gay guy does, and over the next 33 years he wrote more than 100 books.
His hard work never brought him riches though. He associated himself with the street ruffians of the city and took his meals and slept at the boys’ boarding houses. He gave the money earned from his stories to the young men that he admired and used as models for his tales. Except for Ragged Dick, his books were not a success until after his death. His family then destroyed all his personal papers.
Embedded in Alger’s work is that strong Protestant work ethic, the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps American thing, and this mythology of destined upward mobility in America is central to modern Conservative thinking, and much of it can be credited to Alger and his adoring fans.
His popularity dwindled in the 1890s and so did his income. In 1896 he had a nervous breakdown that forced him to relocate permanently to his sister’s home in Massachusetts. When he died in 1899, his passing was barely noted in the newspapers. His literary work was bequeathed to a pair of boys he had casually adopted.
Since 1947, the Horatio Alger Association Of Distinguished Americans bestowed awards to “deserving Americans” and is “dedicated to the simple but powerful belief that hard work, honesty and determination can conquer all obstacles“. Among the 14 winners for 2020 award are professional Oprah beard Stedman Graham and elderly actor Jane Seymour.
Alger did not believe in a key part of that darn American Dream: the idea that it lies within the grasp of any man or woman. In the stories he wrote, every protagonist is a white male. Apparently, Alger did think races like the negros or ”heathen Chinee” could succeed in America, except not through honest hard work but through ”craft and deceit”.”
Like the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series that I read as a kid, his books are all the same, yet all quite readable. Alger had a great gift for narrative. I happened to have bought one at a used bookstore as an adult because I was amused by the title, Ragged Dick. I suspected that it was a story about one of my lost weekends, and I was quite pleasantly surprised at what I was reading.
Among his other colorful titles:
Try and Trust; or, The Story of a Bound Boy
What Boys Can Do On The Farm For The Camp
Charlie Codman’s Cruise: A Story For Boys
Luck And Pluck; Or, John Oakley’s Inheritance
Rough And Ready; Or, Life Among The New York Newsboys
Ben The Luggage Boy; Or, Among The Wharves
Do And Dare; Or, A Brave Boy’s Fight For Fortune
Adrift In The City; Or, Oliver Conrad’s Plucky Fight
Joe The Hotel Boy; Or, Winning By Pluck