I have somewhere on my bookshelf my tattered copy of Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick and Mark the Matchboy. Although few people have heard of either the author or the books now, in the 21st century, at one time Horatio Alger was so popular that he was a household name and an adjective to describe a specific type of young man.
Alger’s books always followed a similar trajectory: They took place in New York in the second half of the 19th century. The hero was a young man, maybe 14 or so, who was an orphan and lived in abject poverty, whether with an evil caretaker or alone, on the streets.
Despite this “root cause” handicap, the hero was always honest, intrepid, and hardworking. He made money as best as he could, whether by polishing boots, selling matches, running errands, or doing any other odd jobs that came his way. He defended the weak, and turned his back on evil companions and evil activities.
Midway through the book, a Horatio Alger hero always did a signal service for a rich businessman. This often involved saving the man’s life or fortune, or saving the life of someone near or dear to the businessman.
Contrary to what one might expect, the businessman did not hand a fortune over to the hero. Instead, he gave the hero a job in his business, starting with the mid-19th century equivalent of the mail room. Then, through that same hard work, decency, and initiative that characterized the young man all along, the hero rose honestly through the ranks to become a person of substance.
As I said, in post-Civil War America, Alger’s books were phenomenally popular, especially among young men who truly believed that they could make it in America no matter the social or economic handicaps under which they labored. And many of them did precisely what Alger promised: they left behind their poverty and became men of substance, with or without rescuing the rich man’s daughter.
Of late, we have been told that America is no longer the land of opportunity. Institutional racism, sexism, anti-LGBTQ-isms, economic inequality, robots, crime, collapsed infrastructure, and other social justice failures — all are named as reasons why a young man (or woman) can’t make it any more, rising from the bottom to the top, a la Horatio Alger. During my trip to Bend, though, I’ve met a young man who could be an Alger hero because, completely innocent of Alger’s existence, he’s following the prescribed path. [Read more…]