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date: 24 October 2017

Alger, Horatio

Horatio Alger wrote approximately one hundred novels, as well as biographies of public figures, short stories, and poetry. Alger emerged from the same New England cultural milieu that produced major authors and intellectuals from Jonathan Edwards to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and William and Henry James, but he came to exemplify the mass-produced popular fiction that such writers generally abhorred. In a related irony, Alger's stories of a virtuous boy or young man ascending into the middle class were widely accepted early in his career as appropriate for children, but by the end of his career many critics lumped them together with more sensationalistic and ambiguously moral books. Alger's reputation—along with the dominant interpretation of his fiction—took yet more turns after his death, as his books went through at least two different twentieth-century revivals. Any understanding of Alger should encompass not only his actual life and works but also the various meanings that “the Horatio Alger story” has accrued.

Career Changes

Alger was expected to follow his father into the Unitarian ministry, and so at age sixteen left Chelsea, Massachusetts, where he was born on 13 January 1832, to matriculate at Harvard. There he began writing and publishing poems and essays, mostly in the popular sentimental vein of the period. Some of these were later collected in his first book, Bertha's Christmas Vision: An Autumn Sheaf (1856). He received an advanced degree from the Divinity School in 1860 and then left to travel in Europe. Deemed unqualified for service in the Union army, in 1864 Alger wrote a book about the home front. Frank's Campaign (1864), the story of a boy who keeps up the family farm while his father fights in the war, sold well and met with positive reviews.

At first it seemed Alger might maintain both careers. He accepted an offer to preach at the First Unitarian Church in Brewster, Massachusetts, and while there he published another boys' novel and started work on a book for girls. However, in another personal and moral twist difficult to reconcile with his reputation as a moral exemplar of the virtues of acquisitiveness, his Brewster parishioners charged him with pederasty. Alger may not have denied that he had committed “a crime of no less magnitude than the abominable and revolting crime of unnatural familiarity with boys, which is too revolting to think of in the most brutal of our race,” for he voluntarily left Brewster for New York City. The charges did not come up again publicly during his lifetime. Henry James Sr. remarked in 1870 that “Alger talks freely about his own late insanity—which he in fact appears to enjoy as a subject of conversation” (Scharnhorst and Bales, 1985, pp. 67, 70).

The Brewster charges ended Alger's ministerial career. However, his move to New York gave him the elements out of which he would construct his most famous character, Ragged Dick. Alger became friendly with Charles Loring Brace, founder of the Children's Aid Society and the Newsboys' Lodging House, and through Brace met the street children and bootblacks who would so often be the protagonists of his stories. Drawing on this material, in January of 1867 the serialization of Ragged Dick; or, Street Life in New York began in the magazine Student and Schoolmate. In 1868 the story appeared in book form, rapidly becoming a best-seller.

Ragged Dick and the Horatio Alger Myth

Later promoters of the Alger myth would describe his tales as “rags to riches” stories, and the first part of this description certainly applies to the title character of Ragged Dick. As the novel opens, Dick is living on the street, selling newspapers and shining shoes. Dick is no paragon of virtue; his faults—theatergoing, smoking, and gambling—are made evident early on. Like all of Alger's protagonists, though, Dick is honest by nature, “frank and straightforward, manly and self-reliant.” Perhaps most important, his virtues are evident to anyone willing to look for them. In the novel's opening chapters, a wealthy businessman hires the boy to give his son a tour of New York, and Dick proves a good choice. He demonstrates his knowledge of the city, and along the way outwits a swindler and returns the money to its owner, is accused and proven innocent of theft himself, and displays a clever, punning wit. Dick's encounter with the wealthier boy and the generosity of the boy's father inspire him to renounce his vices, save enough money to find lodging, and generally improve himself both morally and financially.

As in other nineteenth-century American tales of self-making such as slave narratives, Ragged Dick dramatizes its hero's acquisition of literacy. Dick learns to read and write in an exchange both emotional and economic, as he offers to share his bed with his friend Fosdick if the younger boy will teach him. In another prototypical scene, Dick selflessly rescues a rich man's daughter from drowning. The girl's father thanks Dick by sending him new clothes and hiring him as a clerk. This almost accidental intervention into the boy's life is more typical of Alger's formula than is the “rags to riches” version of the story, in which hard work and thrift are what propel the boy to great wealth. Most often the story hinges on a wealthy patron recognizing the boy's virtue despite his visible poverty; as one such patron describes the hero of Silas Snobden's Office Boy (1899): “He is a very good-looking boy, and he looks good, which is still better.” And the boy's “rise” usually culminates in a position no more exalted than a job in middle management. Only in a few fairly atypical stories do the boys acquire great wealth, and in some of these cases this is the result of unexpected inheritance rather than hard work.

Thus, Alger's writings themselves did not purvey quite the same fantasy that twentieth-century politicians and businessmen meant to evoke when they referred to a “Horatio Alger tale.” That is not to say that Alger was an urban realist or social critic. But he and his supporters distinguished his stories from those of his predecessors by claiming that they possessed qualities of realism and material specificity that had been lacking in earlier boys' fiction. Some of his novels took readers on geographically and sociologically plausible tours of New York City, from lodging houses for the poor to luxury suites in the Astor Place Hotel. They taught readers that there were children sleeping in boxes on city streets, and somewhat undercut the potentially excessive sentimentality of such scenes by depicting his boys as witty and lively personalities, many of whom had the wherewithal to cope with their poverty. Even the novels that took him beyond New York City had aspirations to verisimilitude; Alger took a trip to the West in 1876–1877 to gather material and experiences for a series to be set there. Although they may seem didactic to us today, Alger's morals were conveyed somewhat more subtly than those in most antebellum children's fiction. Mark Twain's parodies of children's fiction targeted writers like Jacob Abbott's Rollo books, but Twain may have incorporated elements of Alger's formula into, for instance, the half-serious possibility he holds out that Tom Sawyer would grow up to be a respectable and virtuous young man.

Alger's writings veer farthest into fantasy in their understanding of the virtuous benevolence of the Gilded Age. For Alger, a boy who prominently displays his virtue will be noticed by a wealthy patron who is ready to reward him for rescuing a girl from drowning, for foiling a confidence man, for aiding a younger boy in distress. In turn, the boy aspires to become this sort of benevolent man himself, a moral aspiration that to some extent displaces the economic aspirations that might have looked to contemporary readers like naked greed. This aspiration, with which most of his stories conclude, also sets up the promise of a sequel. In the next novel in the series, the previous book's protagonist is generally a minor character who provides the recognition a younger boy needs to set him on his own path to respectability. Thus, Ragged Dick was followed by Fame and Fortune (1868), Mark, the Match Boy (1869), and three more in the Ragged Dick series, which in turn were followed by Luck and Pluck; or, John Oakley's Inheritance (1869), which initiated the eight-book Luck and Pluck series.

Alger struck gold with Ragged Dick, and a few of his other novels sold well enough that he was able to make a decent living from his writing. But most of his books were not massive best-sellers, which was perhaps a reason he wrote so many. Only rarely did he deviate from his blueprint, making at least two attempts to write novels for women: The Disagreeable Woman (1895) and A Fancy of Hers (serialized in 1877). One interesting variation came in the Tattered Tom series, beginning in 1871 with Tattered Tom; or, The Story of a Street Arab, which largely stuck to the formula except that the eponymous protagonist turns out to be a girl named Jane. Alger's biography of James Garfield might seem to represent a more expansive ambition, but the title alone—From Canal Boy to President (1881)—indicates that he was not straying far from familiar narrative ground.

Reprints, Reinterpretations, and Reevaluations

While the texts do not vary much, readers' interpretations of Alger's works shifted significantly during his lifetime and after. As early as 1879, the Library Associations of America drew unusually large crowds to their Boston convention treating the topic of “Fiction in Libraries and the Reading of Children,” and sparked a lively debate in which Alger's works figured prominently. The librarians categorized Alger's works as comparable to, for instance, those of his former mentor William T. Adams, who published under the name “Oliver Optic,” but also to those of more sensational writers such as Mrs. E. D. E. N. Southworth, author of The Hidden Hand (written about 1867) and Ishmael; or, In the Depths (1876). Some speakers acknowledged that Alger and such other writers “mean[t] well,” and many defended children's reading such works as a phase that could lead to better literature. But critics castigated these authors for writing “insipid or sensational fiction” that threatened to “emasculate” the minds of their readers, and advocated removing their books from public libraries. There is no record of Alger's response to such claims, but they certainly represent an interpretation of his fiction at variance with both his intentions and the ways in which he would be read in the twentieth century.

Alger reached unprecedented levels of posthumous popularity. Beginning in 1900, Edward Stratemeyer published eleven novels of his own under Alger's name, and soon began reprinting the older ones, some of which had annual sales of a million or more. Sales dropped again in the 1920s, but references to “the Horatio Alger story” did not. A 1943 issue of Atlantic Monthly, for instance, described Alger's novels as evincing a “faith in laissez-faire, in the best of all possible worlds, in the inevitability of rags to riches” (Scharnhorst and Bales, p. 154). Repeatedly in the twentieth century, new and mostly inaccurate readings of the Horatio Alger myth were cited for particular ideological reasons, perhaps most notably by President Ronald Reagan, who—like Dwight Eisenhower, Conrad Hilton, Norman Vincent Peale, and Alfred Fuller, founder of the Fuller Brush Company—was a recipient of the Horatio Alger Award granted annually by the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans.

Perhaps the most egregiously inaccurate Horatio Alger story came in the first published biography of the author, Alger: A Biography without a Hero, written in 1928 by Herbert R. Mayes, a journalist. Mayes admitted fifty years later that he had simply made up the supposed facts in his biography, and that the sources he cited—including a diary and personal letters—did not exist. In the interim, other biographers used this hoax as a source, and so perpetuated Mayes's tales of, for instance, Alger's affairs with women on his trip to Europe. The rediscovery of the Brewster incident added sensational detail to the author's story, but no reliable and sober account of his life was published before Gary Scharnhorst and Jack Bales's 1985 The Lost Life of Horatio Alger Jr.


Bertha's Christmas Vision: An Autumn Sheaf (1856)Find this resource:

Frank's Campaign; or, What Boys Can Do on the Farm for the Camp (1864)Find this resource:

Ragged Dick; or, Street Life in New York with the Boot-Blacks (1868)Find this resource:

Fame and Fortune; or, The Progress of Richard Hunter (1868)Find this resource:

Mark, the Match Boy; or, Richard Hunter's Ward (1869)Find this resource:

Luck and Pluck; or, John Oakley's Inheritance (1869)Find this resource:

Rough and Ready; or, Life among the New York Newsboys (1869)Find this resource:

Tattered Tom; or, The Story of a Street Arab (1871)Find this resource:

Paul, the Peddler; or, The Adventures of a Young Street Merchant (1871)Find this resource:

Phil, the Fiddler; or, The Story of a Young Street Musician (1872)Find this resource:

Strive and Succeed; or, The Progress of Walter Conrad (1872)Find this resource:

Bound to Rise; or, Harry Walton's Motto (1873)Find this resource:

Julius; or, The Street Boy Out West (1874)Find this resource:

Risen from the Ranks; or, Harry Walton's Success (1874)Find this resource:

Brave and Bold; or, The Fortunes of a Factory Boy (1874)Find this resource:

The Young Outlaw; or, Adrift in the Streets (1875)Find this resource:

The Western Boy; or, The Road to Success (1878)Find this resource:

From Canal Boy to President; or, The Boyhood and Manhood of James A. Garfield (1881)Find this resource:

From Farm Boy to Senator; Being the History of the Boyhood and Manhood of Daniel Webster (1882)Find this resource:

Abraham Lincoln, the Backwoods Boy; or, How a Young Rail-Splitter Became President (1883)Find this resource:

The Train Boy (1883)Find this resource:

The Store Boy; or, The Fortunes of Ben Barclay (1887)Find this resource:

Are My Boys Real?, Ladies' Home Journal 7 (November 1890): 29Find this resource:

$500; or, Jacob Marlowe's Secret (1890)Find this resource:

Struggling Upward; or, Luke Larkin's Luck (1890)Find this resource:

Only an Irish Boy; or, Andy Burke's Fortunes and Misfortunes (1894)Find this resource:

The Disagreeable Woman. A Social Mystery (1895)Find this resource:

Writing Stories for Boys, Writer 9 (March 1896): 36–37Find this resource:

Silas Snobden's Office Boy (1899)Find this resource:

A Debt of Honor. The Story of Gerald Lane's Success in the Far West (1900)Find this resource:

Further Reading

Cawelti, John G.Apostles of the Self-Made Man. Chicago, 1965.Find this resource:

Hendler, Glenn. Pandering in the Public Sphere: Masculinity and the Market in Horatio Alger. American Quarterly 48:3 (September 1996): 414–438.Find this resource:

Mayes, Herbert R.Alger: A Biography without a Hero. New York, 1928.Find this resource:

Moon, Michael. ‘The Gentle Boy from the Dangerous Classes’: Pederasty, Domesticity, and Capitalism in Horatio Alger. Representations 19 (Summer 1987): 95–97.Find this resource:

Nackenoff, Carol. The Fictional Republic: Horatio Alger and American Political Discourse. New York, 1994.Find this resource:

Scharnhorst, Gary, and Jack Bales. Horatio Alger Jr.: An Annotated Bibliography of Comment and Criticism. Metuchen, N.J., 1981.Find this resource:

Scharnhorst, Gary, and Jack Bales. The Lost Life of Horatio Alger Jr. Bloomington, Ind., 1985.Find this resource: