Horatio Alger (L)
From Encyclopaedia Britannica
Horatio Alger (January 13, 1832 – July 18, 1899) graduated from Harvard University and saw a brief stint in education before graduating from Harvard Divinity School in 1860. In 1864, he accepted a position in a Unitarian church at Brewster, Massachusetts, United States, but resigned after two years on the job following a sex scandal involving two teenage boys. Abandoning the ministry entirely, he relocated to New York City, New York, United States and became associated with the Newsboys' Lodging House and other organizations dedicated to bettering the lives of impoverished children. His empathy for the children he met, combined with the moral values of his youth, generated a cornucopia of rags-to-riches dime novels about bootblack, buskers, newsboys, and other children whose hard work, determination, and virtue eventually brought them middle class security, comforts, and the respect of honest gentlemen. The novels were hugely popular.
Frontispiece, 1st edition, 1868
The first novel Alger wrote in New York, Ragged Dick (above); or, Street Life in New York with the Boot-Blacks, 1868, was to be his most popular juvenile adventure. Indeed, it was continuously in print for the next forty years. The eponymous hero, Ragged Dick, leads the reader on a tour of mid-nineteenth century New York City. He humorously claims acquaintance with Peter Cooper, Horace Greeley, and other worthies: "Me and Peter Cooper used to go to school together" and "My friend Horace Greeley told me the other day that he'd get me to take his place now and then when he was off makin' speeches if my edication hadn't been neglected." Far from being tainted by his surroundings, Dick displays a natural goodness that blesses the lives of others he meets. "He had lived without a knowledge of God and of religious things," but "he was so far good that he could appreciate goodness in others."
Ragged Dick's plot and character development set the pattern Alger followed in more than one hundred additional novels, including Fame and Fortune, 1869 (a sequel with the same character); Rough and Ready, 1869; Ben, the Luggage Boy, 1870; Paul, the Peddlar, 1871; Tattered Tom, 1871; and Strive and Succeed, 1871. The structure was simple: a poor but able youngster with no prospects, due to his own efforts and with help from kind and good adults, dramatically improves his station in society…..
(Alan Seaburg at Unitarian Universalist Historical Society - UUHS)
The Book barn, Niantic, Connecticut
From the debut of his first novel, Ragged Dick, in 1867, Alger was instrumental in establishing a new genre of dime novels known as the 'city story.' The genre arose out of the wide-spread urbanization that followed the Civil War and paralleled the rise of industrialism. Alger's stories heroicized the young street urchins living in poverty among large, urban centers such as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. With uncommon courage and moral fortitude, Alger's youths struggle against adversity to achieve great wealth and acclaim. These rags to riches stories were enormously popular with the public and flourished in the decades from 1870 to 1890.
The most trying aspect of studying the life of Horatio Alger is that the majority of his earliest biographies are at worst total fiction, and at best, relatively innocent borrowings from the worst. The difficulties facing the biographers are clear, and one can sympathize with such authors; for upon Alger's death in 1899, his sister Augusta, in accordance with his will, destroyed Alger's diary and all personal correspondence. Despite the dearth of primary information, several writers have tried in the century since his death to write the authoritative Alger biography, relying on fabrication inplace of exhaustive research. Thus, Alger's true life has remained an enigma. In fact, the history of the Alger biography nearly takes precedence over the man himself.
The initial perpetrator to this century of misrepresentation is Herbert Mayes, who in 1927 was contracted to write the first full biography of the author. After a few days of research, in which a lack of evidence and many close-lipped contemporaries of Alger confounded Mayes, he decided to write instead a parody of Alger that would resemble the tell-all scandal biographies of the time…..
Why did it take so long to find the true Alger history? Indeed, the real story is certainly not as fascinating as the figments of earlier biographers. Ironically, Alger's story seems to have been told, in part, by the novels and poetry which he published. Alger is an author who wrote what he knew, and thus the clearest picture of Alger and his motivations, it follows, can be drawn from these texts. The true story is both much more dramatic and much more human than any of the fabricators could have imagined. One of the most useful documents in reconstructing his life is a poem he wrote at the inception of his juvenile career…..
Of his undergraduate studies, Alger later wrote: "No period of my life has been one of such unmixed happiness as the four years which have been spent within college walls". He made fast and permanent friends with many members of his class, and studied under many famous personages, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow being the most significant to the young Alger. At Harvard, he began his writing career, his works including not only poetry and short sketches, but also academic essays on medieval chivalry and Cervantes. He was named the Class Poet, and at reunions much later in life, would deliver odes to the years he enjoyed so much…..
(Biographies, The Lives of Horatio Alger, Jr. at lib.rochester.edu)
Most Americans easily recognize a typical “Horatio Alger hero” as someone who rises from humble beginnings to success and prosperity through hard work, perseverance, and pluck. But few can identify Horatio Alger as a real person in spite of being the most widely read author of juvenile literature during the latter part of the nineteenth century.....
During his life, Alger wrote more than 100 books and scores of short stories and articles. In fact, his output was so prolific that he used at least six pen names since many of his serial stories appeared concurrently in the same publication. Although most of Alger’s books were geared for juvenile audiences, he did make several attempts at writing for adults, albeit with less than satisfactory results.
His most notable non-juvenile book appeared in 1875, titled Grand’ther Baldwin’s Thanksgiving, a slim volume of poetry and ballads all previously published in various periodicals. It was generally well received and proved that Alger was, on occasion, able to successfully deviate from his usual juvenile fare. Much of Alger’s verse was patterned after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, best known for his long narrative poems on historical subjects. Alger became acquainted with Longfellow during his early Harvard years when Longfellow was a professor there…..
( Robert E. Kasper, Executive Director, Horatio Alger Society, Richmond, Virginia)
Many of his works have been described as rags to riches stories, illustrating how down-and-out boys might be able to achieve the American dream of wealth and success through hard work, courage, determination, and concern for others. The widely held view involves a significant simplification, as Alger's characters do not typically achieve extreme wealth, but middle-class security, stability, and solidity of reputation — that is, their efforts are rewarded with a place in society, not domination of it. He is noted as a significant figure in the history of American cultural and social ideals.
Though often repetitive, Alger's novels remain popular. As bestsellers in their own time, Alger's books rivaled those of Mark Twain in popularity.....
His books were almost always about poor boys from the country who travel to the city to seek their fortune. Instead they find evil and certain disaster, but through pluck and luck they overcome their travails and triumph in the end. The formula was so popular and well known that the author's name is invoked, even today, when describing any story in which the protagonist goes from rags to riches -- a "Horatio Alger" story.....
(Cape Code Confidential)
Alger was not an intellectual; rather, he wrote DIME NOVELS for the hordes of immigrant masses rushing to America's shores. Although he penned many stories, each book answered the question of how to get rich in America. Alger believed that a combination of hard work and good fortune — pluck and luck, in his words — was the key.
A typical Alger story would revolve around a hardworking immigrant who served on the bottom rung of the corporate ladder, perhaps as a stock boy. One day he would be walking down the street and see a safe falling from a tall building. Our hero would bravely push aside the hapless young woman walking below and save her life. Of course, she was the boss's daughter. The two would get married, and he would become vice-president of the corporation.
This is what the masses wished to believe. Success would not come to a select few based on nature or divine intervention. Anyone who worked hard could make it in America if they caught a lucky break. This idea is the basis for the "AMERICAN DREAM."
Is Alger's dream a reality or just folklore? There simply is no answer. Thousands of Americans have found this idyllic path, but as many or more have not.
(New Attitudes Toward Wealth, U.S. History Online Textbook at ushistory.org,)
Despite his remarkable literary output, Alger never became rich from his writing. According to legend, he gave most of his money to homeless boys and in some instances was actually conned out of his earnings by boys he tried to help. His books expressed an optimistic wholesomeness no longer popular, but the moral messages they relayed were an important factor in popularizing the American dream. At the time of his death, Alger was living with his sister Augusta and her husband in Natick, Massachusetts. She destroyed all his personal papers. He is buried in the family plot in Glenwood Cemetery, South Natick.
Novels uncompleted at Alger's death and subsequently completed by Edward Stratemeyer include Out for Business, Falling in with Fortune, Nelson, the Newsboy, Young Captain Jack, Jerry, the Backwoods Boy, Lost at Sea, From Farm to Fortune, The Young Book Agent, Randy of the River, Joe, the Hotel Boy, and Ben Logan's Triumph. Perhaps to capture some of Alger's popularity, Stratemeyer also wrote some of his novels using Alger's name as a pseudonym.