Early Life

(19th-Century Biographies)

Horatio Alger, Jr., traced his ancestry to Puritans who came to Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1621. His father, Horatio Alger, Sr., was a graduate of the Harvard Theological School and the minister at the First Congregational Church in Chelsea, Massachusetts. His mother, Olive Augusta Fenno, had married his father just ten months before the birth of Horatio, Jr. The ministerial stipend was not large; thus, the family was usually in debt. In 1844, when Horatio, Jr., was twelve, his father went bankrupt. For a time his father turned to farming but eventually went back into the ministry and later served in the Massachusetts state legislature.

Alger was a sickly child; he was nearsighted and had asthma. In 1848, at the age of sixteen, he was admitted to Harvard College. The first publication for which he received payment came in 1849 when a Boston magazine bought a poem he had penned. During his senior year, he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and he graduated in 1852. Although he immediately planned to enter the Harvard Divinity School, a writing job arose, and he decided to become a journalist—a career he was to follow for five years. In the fall of 1857, he entered the Harvard Divinity School, from which he graduated in 1860. Alger was soon named to the pulpit of the Unitarian Church in Brewster, Massachusetts. Because his church duties were often light, he spent a great deal of time writing stories for children, which was not a popular sideline in the eyes of his parishioners.

Unfortunately, Alger apparently had a homosexual relationship with one or more of the young boys in his church. Once this came to light in 1866, he was forced not only to resign his church but also to resign the ministry. The Unitarians agreed to keep the situation quiet if Alger agreed to never again serve as a minister. He then moved to New York, where he became a full-time writer. His personal relations with boys never again came into question. Many authors, however, have speculated that Alger’s love for boys was a vicarious motivation that surfaced in his writing. From the event, Alger learned discretion and was never again accused of a homosexual relationship, but he also never allowed himself to be in the public eye. His books and short stories were all that people ever really knew about the man during the remainder of his lifetime.

Life’s Work

(19th-Century Biographies)

In middle age, at a time when he had been relatively unsuccessful in other endeavors, Alger began writing books for juveniles. He was best known as a writer of books in which the heroes started out poor and ended up wealthy. Among his more popular titles were Ragged Dick (1867), Luck and Pluck (1869), and Tattered Tom (1871). His heroes were typically newsboys, shoe shiners, match sellers, farmers, or luggage carriers who rose to fame and fortune via their own efforts, bravery, and courage. His young entrepreneurs earned and spent their wealth honestly. His books were particularly popular during the Progressive Era because they satisfied the Progressives’ desire to reform business and government through a return to morality.

Alger’s adult life was essentially dull: He did nothing but write. In addition to writing more than 120 books, he published hundreds of short stories and over one hundred poems. Many of his short stories were written under pseudonyms. His writing was not particularly difficult in that it was formulaic fiction that required little research. Short stories were turned into serials, and serials were turned into books. In one sense, Alger was a self-plagiarizer because he used the same work over and over. His first book, Bertha’s Christmas Vision, was published in 1856. His fourth book, and first financially successful volume, was Paul Prescott’s Charge in 1865.

Alger’s writings captured the spirit of the United States. In his books, the reader could hear the turmoil of the city streets and the rattle of the milk pails on the farms. He portrayed the ambitious soul of the nation. Manly forbearance was an important part of Alger’s writings; it was okay to fight or even shoot someone, but only after Alger had made it clear that there was no other possibility. Money, contracts,...

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(19th-Century Biographies)

Mayes, Herbert R. A Biography Without a Hero. New York: Macy- Masius, 1928. This work is a complete fabrication. When Mayes discovered that there was insufficient information to write a true biography, he decided, with the approval of his publisher, to write a parody of Alger’s life based on nonexistent diaries and letters. Surprisingly, his parody was not recognized as such and was viewed as a legitimate biography for several decades. Reviews were generally favorable. Alger’s surviving friends and relatives apparently did not reveal the truth, probably because they were happy that the truth had not been revealed. Many subsequent biographers unwittingly used this book as a source of factual information on Alger’s life.

Nackenoff, Carol. The Fictional Republic: Horatio Alger and American Political Discourse. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. The emphasis is on Alger’s social leanings and his influence on politics.

Scharnhorst, Gary, and Jack Bales. The Lost Life of Horatio Alger, Jr. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985. This is the best work on the life of Alger. It was the first to fully unmask the faulty, fictionalized biography of Herbert R. Mayes.

Tebbel, John. From Rags to Riches: Horatio Alger and the American Dream. New York: Macmillan, 1963. Although based on the fictional work of Mayes, this volume does contain a complete bibliography of Alger’s works.

Weiss, Richard. The American Myth of Success: From Horatio Alger to Norman Vincent Peale. New York: Basic Books, 1969. This volume analyzes the work of popular writers who portray the ease with which Americans can become successful.