Horatio Jr. Alger Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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."

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.