Alger, Horatio Jr.
Horatio Alger, Jr. 1832–1899
(Also wrote under the pseudonyms of Arthur Lee Putnam, Arthur Hamilton, and Julian Starr). American novelist, biographer, short story writer, poet, and essayist.
For additional information on the life and career of Alger, see NCLC, Volume 8.
Alger was one of the most widely-read authors of juvenile fiction in the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He wrote more than a hundred books, all based on the principle that honesty, perseverance, and industry are certain to be rewarded. Almost invariably, his novels described a virtuous boy's rise from poverty to prosperity. In an era of rapid industrial growth when many Americans were accumulating vast personal fortunes, Alger captured the imaginations of millions of young readers and underscored the ideals and aspirations of a changing American society. Alger's works lost their relevance and popularity during the twentieth century, but they have been regarded by historians and popular culturalists since the 1970s as definitive American mythology. Alger did not invent the "rags-to-riches" formula for fiction, but he is often credited with popularizing it. Although Alger's stories are generally considered devoid of literary merit, he is of historical interest to the student of American culture since, as the critic Rychard Fink expressed it: "It is dangerous to ignore a man whose ideas hang on so stubbornly."
Born in Revere, Massachusetts, Alger was the oldest child of a Unitarian preacher and his wife. When he was twelve, the family moved to Marlborough, Massachusetts, where he attended Gates Academy in preparation for admission to Harvard College. In 1853, after his graduation from Harvard, Alger entered Cambridge Divinity School but withdrew shortly afterwards in order to become an assistant editor for the Boston Daily Advertiser. He held this post until the spring of 1854, when he was hired to teach at a boarding school in East Greenwich, Rhode Island. After briefly serving as the principal of a boys' academy in Deerfield, Massachusetts, Alger reentered Cambridge Divinity School and was ordained a minister in 1861.
Little is known of Alger's personal life. Prior to 1961, his only biographer was Herbert R. Mayes, who issued Alger: A Biography without a Hero in 1928. A fictitious account of Alger's life based on a diary and letters that never existed, Mayes's biography was accepted as authoritative by the majority of Alger's critics for nearly forty years and is quoted as a reliable source in most reference texts. Almost all of the criticism of Alger's works written since 1928 relies to some degree on this fabrication, which was made partly plausible by a thread of biographical fact and a detailed listing of Alger's works, some of which Mayes invented. Mayes portrayed Alger as the repressed child of a stern Unitarian preacher who insisted on training his son for the ministry almost from birth. After graduating from divinity school, Mayes wrote, Alger rebelled against his father by fleeing to Paris, where he engaged in a series of ill-fated romances. According to Mayes, Alger returned to the United States to write a "great novel" for an adult audience but succeeded only in producing an endless stream of stories for juveniles. The irony of Alger's life, Mayes concluded, was that the creator of the "rags-to-riches" myth died a frustrated and impoverished man. The first major attempt to discredit Mayes's biography, Frank Gruber's Horatio Alger, Jr.: A Biography and Bibliography, was published in 1961. In 1964, Ralph D. Gardner published his Horatio Alger, or the American Hero Era, another study devoted to dispelling the misconceptions about Alger's life generated by Mayes. Yet it was not until 1972 that Mayes first admitted that his biography "literally swarms … with countless absurdities." Since Mayes's admission, several critics, most notably Jack Bales and Gary Scharnhorst, have documented the hoax.
During several years of irregular employment, Alger contributed essays, poems, and short stories to a variety of magazines and newspapers. His earliest literary efforts were directed toward adults; it was not until 1864 that he published his first novel for juveniles, Frank's Campaign; or, What Boys Can Do on the Farm for the Camp. In 1866, encouraged by the favorable reception of Frank's Campaign and its sequel, Paul Prescott's Charge, Alger resigned from his ministerial position at the Unitarian Church in Brewster, Massachusetts, and moved to New York City, where he devoted himself to writing. The following year, his most successful novel, Ragged Dick; or, Street Life in New York with the Boot-Blacks, was serialized in the children's magazine Student and Schoolmate. The hero of the story, Dick Hunter, is a New York City bootblack who, by a combination of luck, pluck, hard work, thrift, and piety, gains the opportunity to become a respected and influential member of society. Alger followed the pattern set in Ragged Dick with little variation in a steady succession of enormously popular novels, including the Tattered Tom and Luck and Pluck series, sales of which almost equaled those of the Ragged Dick books. In addition, Alger composed several biographies of self-made statesmen, among them From Canal Boy to President; or, The Boyhood and Manhood of James A. Garfield, and Abraham Lincoln, the Backwoods Boy; or, How a Young Rail-Splitter Became President. Most of his novels are set in New York City during the latter half of the nineteenth century, and critics praise his accurate descriptions of the city's streets, boarding houses, hotels, and restaurants. Alger gathered much of the information for his stories from conversations with young boys who lived in the Newsboys' Lodging House, a philanthropic institution in New York City with which he was closely connected until his death.
Alger's novels reached the height of their popularity during the decade following his death. As economic opportunities in American cities narrowed during the 1920s and 1930s, the books began to lose their credibility and appeal. There was little scholarly interest in Alger's works until the publication in 1945 of Struggling Upward, and Other Works, a reprinting of Ragged Dick, and Struggling Upward. Most commentators share Richard Wright's opinion that Alger "was, is and will forever be the most terribly bad of writers," and his stories are consistently denounced for their stock characterization, repetitious plots, and stilted dialogue. Alger's historical and cultural significance is still debated. In the 1940s and 1950s, he was generally viewed as an apologist for business success, a man who applied the Protestant ethic to the urban world of the Gilded Age. Van Wyck Brooks faulted him for vulgarizing Ralph Waldo Emerson's doctrine of self-reliance by writing about boys whose motive was self-advancement instead of self-improvement. Russel Crouse, Kenneth S. Lynn, and Wright emphasized the monetary value which Alger placed on the virtues of hard work, thrift, and obedience and interpreted his heroes as would-be captains of industry who exploit every opportunity to succeed financially. Since the 1960s, Alger's role as a propagandist of capitalism has been repeatedly challenged and it is frequently argued that his stories do not sustain the "rags-to-riches" myth with which his name has become synonymous. John G. Cawelti, Michael Zuckerman, and Frank Shuffleton maintain that Alger was not an exponent of entrepreneurial individualism, because his typical hero's success is largely due to a chance encounter with a benevolent patron. They also point out that Alger's heroes aspire to middle-class respectability rather than wealth. Scharnhorst contends that Alger was primarily a moralist who hoped to imitate on a juvenile level the novels of Charles Dickens, which helped to expose social injustices in England. Critics often note, however, that Phil, the Fiddler, which called attention to the padrone system, by which young street musicians were brought to New York from Italy and kept as virtual slaves, was the only Alger novel that contributed to social reform.
Speculation often centers on Alger's move from the ministry in Brewster to writing in New York, which Mayes explained as Alger's rebellion against his father and the church. Scharnhorst, Alan Trachtenberg, and Michael Moon have suggested that, in fact, the move was prompted by a scandal in which Alger was accused of making "unnatural" advances towards boys in his congregation. This evidence has brought a new twist to Alger criticism in the 1980s and 1990s, which sometimes focuses on the homoeroticism of his works. At the same time, scholars like Carol Nackenoff draw attention away from exploring Alger's personal motives by encouraging a more historical understanding of the social contexts he represented.
Critics have offered varying explanations for Alger's apparent transformation in the middle of the twentieth century from a minor writer of popular children's stories into a prophet of business enterprise. Some commentators argue that after the Depression, Alger made a convenient scapegoat for the evils of unrestrained capitalism. Others contend that Mayes, who stated in his biography of Alger that all his heroes "started poor and ended up well-to-do," was instrumental in creating the Alger legend. While today it is generally agreed that the fictional hero created by Horatio Alger does not embody the myth that has been ascribed to him, Alger remains significant as a cultural and historical phenomenon.
Bertha's Christmas Vision (short stories and poetry) 1856
Frank's Campaign; or, What Boys Can Do on the Farm for the Camp (novel) 1864
Paul Prescott's Charge (novel) 1865
Fame and Fortune; or, The Progress of Richard Hunter (novel) 1868
Ragged Dick; or, Street Life in New York with the Boot-Blacks (novel) 1868
Luck and Pluck; or, John Oakley's Inheritance (novel) 1869
Mark, the Match Boy; or, Richard Hunter's Ward (novel) 1869
Rough and Ready; or, Life among the New York Newsboys (novel) 1869
Ben, the Luggage Boy; or, Among the Wharves (novel) 1870
Rufus and Rose; or; The Fortunes of Rough and Ready (novel) 1870
Sink or Swim; or, Harry Raymond's Resolve (novel) 1870
Paul the Peddler; or, The Adventures of a Young Street Merchant (novel) 1871
Strong and Steady; or, Paddle Your Own Canoe (novel) 1871
Tattered Tom; or, The Story of a Street Arab (novel) 1871
Phil, the Fiddler; or, The Story of a Young Street Musician (novel) 1872
Slow and Sure; or, From the Street to the Shop (novel) 1872
Strive and Succeed; or, The Progress of Walter Conrad (novel) 1872...
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SOURCE: "The Alger Hero," in Heroes of Popular Culture, edited by Ray B. Browne, Marshall Fishwick, and Michael T. Marsden, Bowling Green University Press, 1972, pp. 42–51.
[In the following essay, Coad argues that though Horatio Alger's work has been relatively neglected by scholars, Alger's ideals are still reflected in America's materialistic culture.]
Hidden on one of the inside pages of a recent edition of The New York Times was a small article announcing the recipients of the Annual Horatio Alger Awards, an event that has been going on for some years now.1 Certainly few people would dispute that the day has passed when simple country boys can become sole owners of large enterprises merely by climbing through the ranks from errand-boy to president. And contemporary sociologists, supported by much impressive statistical data, have been quick to point out that the majority of successful businessmen do not, and never did, struggle to the top solely by way of their own "pluck" and industry. Yet, even though it is no longer front-page news, a remnant of that era when the Carnegies, Rockefellers, and Vanderbilts were held up as national heroes who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps continued to cling to its place in the minds of many Americans.
The fact is that social engineering has largely replaced pioneering and profiteering as fertile ground for prospective...
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SOURCE: "The Boudoir Tales of Horatio Alger, Jr.," in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. X, No. 1, 1976, pp. 215–26.
[In the following essay, Scharnhorst looks at the humanitarian moralism of Alger's adult fiction.]
Horatio Alger, Jr., whose fame rests upon his prodigious output of over a hundred juvenile novels written between 1864 and his death in 1899, also had a career as a writer of adult fiction, although it is generally ignored. Alger published a total of eleven adult novelle between 1857 and 1869, by which time the demand for his juvenile work had substantially increased following the publication in 1867 of his first best seller for boys, Ragged Dick, or Street Life in New York. In addition, during his career Alger published nearly two hundred different short tales in such family and women's magazines as Home Circle, Yankee Blade, and Gleason's Literary Companion. Most of these were also originally written prior to his success in the juvenile genre, however, and later reprinted in various publications.1 Finally, late in life, after his reputation as a juvenile fictionist was secure, Alger wrote three more adult novels, one of which remains unpublished and in manuscript. This complete body of work, particularly the short apprenticeship pieces, still await a more thorough anlysis than is possible here; however, a few representative adult works, by providing a context...
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SOURCE: "Horatio Alger and American Modernism: The One-Dimensional Social Formula," in American Studies, Vol. 17, No. 2, June 20-July 11, 1976, pp. 11–27.
[In the following essay, Lhamon places Alger as a central influence in defining American mores and developmental ideals, especially in regard to the relationship of the individual to society.]
Imamu Amiri Baraka's story, "The Death of Horatio Alger," is an important overlooked benchmark in the history of American literature because it so consciously marks the end of America's one-dimensional culture.1 Baraka says even "Poets climb, briefly, off their motorcycles, to find out who owns their words. We are named by all the things we will never understand [and] all the pimps of reason who've ever conquered us." He speaks of the white, majority culture as a "complete and conscious phenomenon." And when Horatio Alger died for him, Baraka experienced his "first leap over the barrier." That is, he began to be free when he saw that serious literature was part of the complete and conscious phenomenon that owned his earlier words. By holding him in Horatio Alger's sort of life, literature, too, pimped his reason. It, too, conquered him. Serious literature was the cultural arm of social oppression. It was war carried on by other means.
And there is a measure of truth in that claim, because Alger's influence...
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SOURCE: "Cast Upon the Breakers (1887–1899)," in The Lost Life of Horatio Alger, Jr., Indiana University Press, 1985, pp. 127–48.
[In the following chapter, Scharnhorst and Bales provide biographical and historical information on the last decade of Alger's life, with special attention to his politics and economic ideology.]
Rupert did not envy his father's old partner. "I would rather be poor and honest, " he reflected, "than live in a fine house, surrounded by luxury, gained by grinding the faces of the poor. "
—HORATIO ALGER, JR.,
Alger was a mugwump, a liberal Republican committed to principles of fair prices and decent wages, a critic of sharp business practices and cutthroat competition. He was neither an apologist for the wealthy class nor a stalking horse for industrial capitalism. Rather, his appeal was fundamentally nostalgic. He often set his tales in idealized villages modeled upon preindustrial Marlborough. His heroes never worked in mechanized factories, and in his later stories they were more often sons of poor farmers than indigent street Arabs. Whereas Alger wrote his early juvenile fiction to publicize the work of the Children's Aid Society and kindred institutions, many of the stories he wrote in the 1880s and 1890s were thinly-disguised...
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SOURCE: "'The Gentle Boy from the Dangerous Classes': Pederasty, Domesticity, and Capitalism in Horatio Alger," in Representations. No. 19, 1987, pp. 87-110.
[In the following essay, Moon discusses Alger's blend of homoeroticism and capitalist nostalgia.]
Throngs of Ragged Children bent on earning or cadging small sums of money filled the streets of mid-nineteenth-century New York, if we are to credit the testimony of a large number of chroniclers of city life of the period. These genteel observers—journalists, novelists, social reformers, early criminologists—professed to be alternately appalled and enchanted by the spectacle of street children noisily and energetically playing, begging, and hawking a multitude of services and goods—shoeshines, matches, newspapers, fruit. In considering the accounts of this scene made by those who first concerned themselves with it, one soon becomes aware that a significant number of writers respond to it with strong ambivalence. For many of them, there is an undeniable charm or beauty, strongly tinged with pathos, in the spectacle of the pauper children: the high style with which they collectively wage their struggle for subsistence exerts a powerful appeal. For some of the same observers, though, the charm of the street urchins is a siren song: beneath their affecting exteriors many of them are prematurely criminal, expert manipulators of the responses of naive...
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SOURCE: "Reading Alger: Searching for Alger's Audience in the Literary Marketplace," in The Fictional Republic: Horatio Alger and American Political Discourse. Oxford University Press, 1994, pp.181-203.
[In the following chapter, Nackenoff identifies Alger's readership within the changing historical context of increased literacy and cheaper availability of books.]
Your kind and flattering letter reached me just as I was starting for the Geysers … It gives me great pleasure to find that I have friends and appreciative readers among the girls, as well as among the boys, and on the shores of the Pacific, as well as the Atlantic. I hope at an early date to write a story located in California, and I shall be glad if it proves acceptable to my friends here.
Alger to Miss Harriet Jackson, March 3, 18771
The marked surge in the production, dissemination, and reading of literature in the Gilded Age created new readers and new reading tastes. Rising literacy, increased leisure for some, a spreading national network of reading matter available for purchase and loan, and declining price of fiction helped make readers out of new classes. Especially after 1880, these factors worked in conjunction with growing family incomes to produce changes in reading propensities, buying habits, and tastes. Much of the reading was fiction....
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Beauchamp, Gorman. "Ragged Dick and the Fate of Respectability." Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Summer 1992): 324-45.
In this discussion of Ragged Dick, Beauchamp argues that critics in the past overlooked the preeminent theme of respectability, an ideal he finds relatively scarce in contemporary American popular culture.
Hendler, Glenn. "Pandering in the Public Sphere: Masculinity and the Market in Horatio Alger." American Quarterly, Vol. 48, no. 3 (September 1996): 415-38.
Hendler argues that Alger's novels were intended to indoctrinate boys in preparation for the male, financial, public sphere.
Nackenoff, Carol. "Of Factories and Failures: Exploring the Invisible Factory Gates of Horatio Alger, Jr." Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 25, no. 4 (Spring 1992): 63-80.
Nackenoff argues that Alger's moralism has been underestimated by past critics. She clarifies the urgency of his moral message by contextualizing his writings historically.
Pauly, Thomas H. "Ragged Dick and Little Women: Idealized Homes and Unwanted Marriages." Journal of Popular Culture 9 (1975): 583-92.
Pauly places Ragged Dick in the context of early children's...
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