(19th-Century Biographies)

Horatio Alger was a private person who shunned publicity throughout his life, perhaps fearing that his reputation would be harmed if an unsavory incident from his early adulthood were to be exposed. Thus, he was one of the most widely read writers in the United States during his lifetime, yet he was unknown. To deter future biographers, he even ordered his sister to destroy all of his personal papers following his death, which she did. Even some documents in the hands of others mysteriously disappeared in the years following his death.

Other writers adapted Alger’s fiction formula for their own uses. Edward Stratemeyer, who dominated the juvenile fiction market between 1910 and 1930 (and who finished eleven of Alger’s book manuscripts that were left unfinished at Alger’s death), also used moral heroism and economic success in his books. Owen Wister, the author of The Virginian (1902), applied the technique to Western stories.

One century after his death, Alger’s name stands as a symbol for America’s central values. It is not because his books are still widely known and read but because his name has entered the language as a substitute for a success story. His books have been lampooned and maligned, but as symbols they are so pervasive in American culture that they have far outlived what was undoubtedly nothing more than a hack writer.

In 1940, authors Nathanael West and Boris Ingster summarized Alger’s life by writing, “only fools laugh at Horatio Alger, and his poor boys who make good. The wiser man who thinks twice about that sterling author will realize that Alger is to America what Homer was to the Greeks.” Indeed, Alger’s stories may not have been based on fact, but they told about the way Americans wanted life to be. Today, Alger would probably be a motivational speaker or writer of some sort who would encourage people to be the best that they could be and promising that success would follow. He has been called one of the great mythmakers of the modern world. There is even an award for successful individuals named the Horatio Alger Award. Henry Steele Commager stated that Alger probably exerted more influence on the national character than any other writer except perhaps Mark Twain.