Finding Horatio Alger’s spirit in the Pacific Northwest

Ragged Dick Horatio AlgerI 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.

“Craig” (not his real name) grew up the youngest of five children in a blended family. His parents were both drug users and his father was briefly jailed for physically abusing Craig. Craig was a quiet kid at school, so nobody really paid attention to the fact that he was gifted at math. What everyone noticed was that he wouldn’t and couldn’t read and was mostly inert. He didn’t get in trouble; he did nothing at all.

Because Craig grew up in an environment addicted not just to drugs but to handouts and welfare, he never had a vision of himself growing up, moving out, and making a name for himself. A much older brother enlisted in the military, but when he came out, he too engaged in the family business of substance abuse. When this older brother hit rock bottom, found God, and got married, he was too busy saving himself to have time for his much younger brother.

When Craig was 20, his parents got evicted from their home and decided that he was a liability as they looked for a new place to live. So it was that they announced to him that they were moving out of the house and that they weren’t taking him with them. This was something of a shock to Craig’s system, as he had neither money or employment prospects.

The logical thing at this point would have been for Craig to (a) go on welfare himself; (b) try crime; or (c) prostitute himself. Fortunately for Craig, an older, childless couple who knew his parents had taken a shine to him. Until he found his feet, they invited him to live in their spare room.

To the older couple’s surprise, despite the fact that Craig was 20, he was a completely unfinished product. He couldn’t drive, he had never done any typically “manly” tasks (fixing a car, hammering a nail), and he was unable to envision himself as a fully functional human being. Fortunately, this childless couple, while they never regretted not having children of their own, discovered that they liked being a finishing school for a hapless and helpless millennial who had come from a background rife with root causes.

One year after moving in with the couple, Craig knew how to drive, hammer a nail, and fix a car. In addition, that older brother came back into his life and offered him piece work in the small business that the brother and his wife had started. Whenever his brother had work, Craig said “yes.” Indeed, he said “yes” so often that, eight months later, he was able to afford to buy a used car and, with help from the man whose house he shared, to get that car up and running.

Six weeks ago, Craig got his first real job at a burger franchise. Following the leads of both the couple with whom he lived and of his brother, Craig arrived at work on time, worked hard, and had a good attitude, both about the job and towards his fellow workers. Within two weeks, his boss was telling him that, if he kept it up, he was going to be rising in the organization.

After one month at the burger place, Craig got the “Employee of the Month” award. Two weeks later, he got a promotion to “trainer” that included a three dollar an hour raise. His current goal is to learn everything he can about the franchise operation, to save money, and eventually to own a franchise himself. He sees the possibility that he might one day own several franchises.

Admittedly, Craig is not the impossibly pure vessel that is a Horatio Alger hero. He’s got a filthy mouth, although he knows how to control it in the workplace. As seems to be the case for too many in his generation, he’s a regular pot user, although it doesn’t seem to stifle his initiative. When he’s not mellowing out with pot, he’s revving himself up with cigarettes. It would be cheaper and his energy would be more stable if he did neither. It’s possible that these habits will impair his initiative, but for the time being he’s on an upward trajectory.

None of these imperfections are venal sins, and all can change with age. What’s important is that this is a young man who has discovered that, if he works and and has a good attitude, he can improve his life. The American dream is possible, and it’s not one built upon victimhood and government benefits.

An important thing to notice in Craig’s potential ascendance to the American middle class (or even in his case the working class) is that job he got at the burger franchise. The Left is gunning for franchises with its insistence upon impossibly high minimum wages that will either destroy franchises or see them abandoning young people in favor of robots.

It’s sad that the training ground that is a McDonald’s or Burger King may soon be gone if the Left has its way. That’s not just because it’s a stepping stone for young kids with initiative. It’s also a great way for young people to learn about the real rules of the real world.

The Left’s attack on franchises hasn’t been limited to making it impossible for individual franchise owners to afford living, breathing employees. The Left has also been trying to change the liability laws governing franchises.

To that end, one of the things the Obama administration tried to do was make corporate franchisers liable for torts occurring at the franchisee level, something that would have made franchising too risky for the corporate headquarters. Thankfully, the Trump administration has rolled back that requirement. Little does Craig know how grateful he should be to President Trump!

I don’t have any profound wrap-up or conclusion to this post. I just thought it was nice to meet a young man who’s overcome a very difficult childhood, to know the couple who gave him a chance, and to recognize that it’s still possible to make it in America.