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Horatio Alger Jr. is the author most closely associated with the American rags-to-riches story. His name has become synonymous with the experience of rising from relative poverty to substantial fortune without an inheritance; such a trajectory is often termed a “real Horatio Alger story.” The son of a Unitarian minister living in Revere and Marlborough, Massachusetts, Alger graduated from Harvard University in 1852 and from the Harvard Divinity School in 1860. The Harvard Unitarians were heirs to the Calvinists, the Puritans, and the Congregationalist tradition. The Unitarians were steeped in a belief in the importance of character and the role of both the individual and the community in maintaining the character and ethical sensibility in the young. At Harvard, Alger studied Greek and Latin and read Scottish common-sense philosophers such as Francis Bacon and Thomas Reid. The Harvard Unitarian moralists of the antebellum era sought to render Plato’s teachings compatible with Christianity, and as Alger saw it, Socrates believed in divine retribution for earthly sinners. Alger also studied with the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882) and later sought his favor when he published his own volume of adult poetry in 1875. One of Alger’s mentors was Harvard president Edward Everett (1794–1865).
Alger served briefly as a minister in Brewster, Massachusetts, but left the ministry in 1866 and moved to New York City to earn his living by his pen. An author of modest literary talent, Alger wrote fiction aimed at pleasing large audiences, but amassed no riches in doing so. In addition to writing, Alger also tutored the sons of wealthy New Yorkers, including those of the Seligman and Cardozo families. Alger published 123 works as novels, serializations in newspapers and magazines, and books of poetry. Most of his formulaic fiction was aimed at juvenile readers. Alger created nineteenth-century characters who are “risen from the ranks,” who “strive and succeed” and are “bound to rise”; they manage to transform themselves with “luck and pluck” and with the help of benevolent mentors from bootblacks, newsboys, or street peddlers to respectable adults with comfortable middle-class incomes. Some late heroes attain more remarkable fortunes, particularly in the era of the robber barons. Several novels feature heroines, such as Jenny Lindsay, the title character in Tattered Tom, who is saved from street life before she attains adolescence. Quite a few heroes leave New England farms and villages where their families cannot support them and go to the big city, but some heroes depart for Western adventures and one is sent, with the help of the Children’s Aid Society, from the city to the countryside to be brought up in a healthier environment.
Alger kept his heroes out of the way of modern factory labor. Genteel moralists of his era believed that manliness required independence; factories were seen as both breeding dependence and bringing the young into contact with fellow workers who endangered virtue. Alger’s most famous and popular work, Ragged Dick, was published in 1867 and featured a young, spirited, cheerful but ragged orphan bootblack who captures the attention of a benefactor who helps him attain middle-class respectability. Alger asserted that his story Phil, the Fiddler, featuring a very young Italian street musician, helped to end the exploitive padrone system, a system that involved the near-enslavement of young children brought from Italy to work for the benefit of those to whom they were contractually bound. The author befriended and assisted various young boys, and informally adopted at least two of them.
Alger heroes not only work hard and help themselves but also possess steadfast character, are loyal to their employers, and help others along the way who are deserving. In Alger’s formula, character is capital. Its value is recognized wherever it goes. Stories arrange for accidents through which the character of the struggling young person comes to the attention of a benefactor. Foils are excessively focused on money, social status, and finery; they consume but do not produce, and have no fellow feeling. Alger’s morality tales frequently arrange justice for such characters. These stories not only provided graphic detail of neighborhoods of New York but also told readers how to avoid crime and confidence games. However, by the 1890s, some moralists inveighed against juvenile fiction, including Alger’s, for planting false ideas of life in the heads of impressionable young people, encouraging them to leave their homes for adventure in the city or out West. Many libraries removed Alger novels in this period.
The fiction of Horatio Alger Jr. fueled the American dream of rising through the ranks and becoming selfmade. Poverty was not an insurmountable barrier to success, and character—a key ingredient of success—was under one’s own control. Many Americans would subsequently conclude that failure was the individual’s own fault. While it was appropriate for charitable organizations and benevolent individuals to help deserving young people along the way, for quite a few Americans the self-help creed precluded public, governmental efforts to address poverty and inequality.
- Cawelti, John. 1965. Apostles of the Self-Made Man. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Moon, Michael. 1987. “The Gentle Boy from the Dangerous Classes”: Domesticity, Pederasty, and Capitalism in Horatio Alger. Representations 19 (summer): 87–110.
- Nackenoff, Carol. 1994. The Fictional Republic: Horatio Alger and American Political Discourse. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Scharnhorst, Gary. 1980. Horatio Alger, Jr. Boston: Twayne Publishers.
- Scharnhorst, Gary, with Jack Bales. 1985. The Lost Life of Horatio Alger, Jr. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
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