Although little remembered today, Horatio Alger was possibly one of the most important voices in mid- to late-19th America. If the name seems vaguely familiar to you, it’s because he wrote a series of “Rags to Riches” books, in each of which a poor boy living alone on New York’s mean streets, through honesty and hard-work, broke free of poverty and entered the ranks of America’s capitalists.
Horatio Alter was born in 1832, in Revere, Massachusetts, to a Unitarian minister and his wife.* His father worked hard to shape young Horatio into a minister as well but, while the moral lessons sank in, the trajectory of Alger’s life showed that the career guidance didn’t work too well.
Alger attended Harvard at 16 (a not un-common entry age in the mid-19th Century), and did extremely well there. It was while he was at Harvard that, quite inadvertently, he embarked on his career as a writer.
When Alger’s landlord, a man whom he liked and respected, had sudden financial difficulties, Alger entered a writing contest to try and raise funds. Alger won the contest and turned the $60 prize over to his friend. Then, in true Alger-esque fashion, when his friend died several years later, Alger learned that he was the recipient of a $2000 bequest — which was a significant sum of money back in 1860. (Depending on the cost calculator one uses, it was worth anything between about $52,000 and $327,000 in 2007 dollars.)
His mentor notwithstanding, it was Alger’s father who was the dominant figure in his early life (which may explain why Alger’s heroes were always orphans). Dad put the kibosh on Alger’s first love so effectively that Alger truly lost heart and never achieved a healthy, adult love again.
Although Alger wanted to be a writer, he yielded to his father’s importuning and entered Harvard Divinity School. He managed to make it through the entire curriculum only to rebel at the last minute. Armed with his $2,000 bequest, he skipped his graduation and moved to Paris, where he learned about “life,” a lesson which included losing his virginity and almost getting trapped into marriage with a rather pushy British woman.
Alger returned to America as the Civil War was beginning. A patriot and a unionist, Alger kept trying to enlist, but fate worked against him. The first time he tried, he broke his arm; then, he got in a train accident; and, on the last try, he got pneumonia. Eventually, he gave up trying and became an ordained minister, a career that lasted only two years.
In 1866, the real Horatio Alger story began. Fed up with a job that was his father’s choice, not his own, and with an overriding dream spurring him on, Alger head for New York with the manuscript for Ragged Dick in his suitcase. The Ragged Dick story did not first appear in book form. As was the case with so many well-known 19th Century works, it started off being serialized in a magazine.
Ragged Dick is, if you’ll pardon me for inserting my own opinion here, a wonderful Cinderella story, and it’s no surprise that it was a success. Dick is a 14 year old shoe shine boy who, since he was 7 years old, has been living alone on the streets of New York. Despite the absence of any adult mentors in his life, Dick’s innate good qualities have ensured that he is hard-working, kind and very, very honest. Still, he’s drifting through life, earning money in the morning with his efforts shining shoes, only to spend it in the evening on cigars and theaters.
All this changes when, in the course of a single day, Dick meets a solid, middle class young man his own age and two older men, one who imparts wisdom (see below) and one who becomes his mentor. Both recognize Dick’s goodness and encourage him to cultivate his virtues.
Dick, tired of a life on the streets and inspired by these new examples in his life, decides to change his ways. He continues to work hard but, instead of spending his money, he saves it; and instead of going clubbing in the evening, he begins to educate himself. The outcome is inevitable: Dick is on his way to becoming a member of America’s thriving Middle Class.
Alger’s writing is rather wooden, and his “humorous” dialog creaks and groans, but that doesn’t matter. The upward trajectory of Dick’s story is so compelling that minor details such as writing quality simply don’t matter. For the 21st Century reader, the story is also wonderful for the glimpse it offers into mid-Century New York. Here’s the description of Central Park (which apparently describes the site at the end of the 1850s):
Central Park was now before them, but it was far from presenting the appearance which it now exhibits. It had not been long since work had been commenced upon it, and it was still very rough and unfinished. A rough tract of land, two miles and a half from north to south, and a half a mile broad, very rocky in parts, was the material from which the Park Commissioners have made the present beautiful enclosure. There were no houses of good appearance near it, buildings being limited mainly to rude temporary huts used by the workmen who were employed in improving it. The time will undoubtedly come when the Park will be surrounded by elegant residences, and compare favorably in this respect with the most attractive parts of any city in the world. But at the time when Frank and Dick visited it, not much could be said in favor either of the Park or its neighborhood.
“If this is Central Park,” said Frank, who naturally felt disappointed, “I don’t think much of it. My father’s got a large pasture that is much nicer.”
Given Ragged Dick’s charms (whether you’re considering the character or the book), it’s no surprise that it was a rip-roaring success, as were the subsequent books Alger wrote.
A hard worker, over the next twenty years, Alger wrote three to five books a year, all imparting the same lesson: be honest, work hard, be a good sport, study hard, save your money and avoid vice, and you will become an American success. Indeed, in Ragged Dick, one of the ‘spectable men Dick meets sums up this guiding Alger-ian notion (emphasis mine):
“I hope, my lad, you will prosper and rise in the world. You know in this free country poverty in early life is no bar to a man’s advancement. I haven’t risen very high myself,” he added with a smile, “but have met with moderate success in life; yet there was a time when I was as poor as you.”
“Were you, sir?” asked Dick, eagerly.
“Yes, my boy, I have known the time when I have been obliged to go without my dinner because I didn’t have enough money to pay for it.”
“How did you get up in the world?” asked Dick, anxiously.
“I entered a printing-office as an apprentice, and worked for some years. Then my eyes gave out and I was obliged to give that up. Not knowing what else to do, I went into the country and worked on a farm. After a while I was lucky enough to invent a machine, which has brought me in a good deal of money. But there was one thing I got while I was in the printing-office which I value more than money.”
“What was that, sir?”
“A taste for reading and study. During my leisure hours I improved myself by study, and acquired a large part of the knowledge which I now possess. Indeed, it was one of my books that first put me on the track of the invention, which I afterwards made. So you see, my lad, that my studious habits paid me in money, as well as in another way.”
“I’m awfully ignorant,” said Dick, soberly.
“But you are young, and, I judge, a smart boy. If you try to learn, you can, and if you ever expect to do anything in the world, you must know something of books.”
“I will,” said Dick, resolutely. “I ain’t always goin’ to black boots for a livin’.”
“All labor is respectable, my lad, and you have no cause to be ashamed of any honest business; yet when you can get something to do that promises better for you future prospects, I advise you to do so. Till then earn your living in the way you are accustomed to, avoid extravagance, and save up a little money if you can.”
Rather than greeting Alger’s books with laughter and sneers for their simplistic message of hard work and virtue (which would be a fairly predictable reaction today), Americans — both native born and immigrant — ate them up. To them, the books were an instruction manual for achieving success. If one didn’t achieve riches, at least it was a way to leave behind the rags.
As Rychard Fink, in the introduction to which I refer in the footnote below, writes at length, Alger was not the first to develop these messages, which are as old as America herself. Nor was he the only one to do so. It was his formula, however, that struck a chord with a burgeoning American population. He wrote fairy tales, backed by solid American morality, and grounded in the American urban scene. They entertained and inspired.
As for Alger himself, in some ways, his life and works merged. He wrote like a maniac, and worked hard with his closest friend, Charles O’Connor, to improve the lot of New York’s homeless boys. His personal life, however, eventually had the elements of a farce.
After moving to a new town, he was carelessly (and completely wrongly) accused of committing a brutal break-in murder. Immediately in the wake of this debacle, he formed an ill-fated (although surely unconsummated) passion for a married woman, which came to nothing. When that affair destroyed his health and his morale, he returned to O’Connor who cared for him in the Newsboys’ Lodging House they had founded until Alger’s death in 1899.
*I’ve culled the factual details of Horatio Alger’s life from the introduction that Rychard Fink wrote in 1962 to the Macmillan reissue of Ragged Dick and Mark, the Match Boy.