Excerpts from Ragged Dick, or, Street Life in New York with the Boot-Blacks
By Horatio Alger
Published in 1868
During the Gilded Age (the era of industrialization from the early 1860s to the turn of the century in which a few wealthy individuals gained tremendous power and influence), many Americans became fascinated by the possible riches that could be made in the new economy. The American dream—the belief that anyone willing to work could live in middle-class comfort in the United States—was expanded to include rags-to-riches stories in which Americans born into poverty could overcome their circumstances and become millionaires. In fact, many real success stories occurred during this time. Oil industrialist John D. Rockefeller (1839–1937), steel businessman Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919), and railroad executive Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794–1877) had all been born in humble homes and yet went on to become some of the richest men in the nation. Novelist Horatio Alger Jr. (1834–1899) was one of the first writers to capture this rags-to-riches theme in fiction, and his dime novels for boys became so popular they were found in almost every American home in the late nineteenth century.
A former Unitarian minister from Massachusetts, Alger left the church and made his way to New York City in 1866. (Unitarianism is a sect of Christianity that does not believe in the Trinity or the divinity of Christ, but believes that God is a single being.) At that time the city was run by a dishonest political machine, or an unelected governing system, headed by William Marcy "Boss" Tweed (1823–1878). Tweed stole millions from the city and placed his friends and supporters in important government positions in order to maintain his power.
In addition to its political problems, New York City was also experiencing a massive inflow of immigrants during the 1860s. The newcomers were arriving in such large numbers that terrible overcrowding resulted, and hastily constructed tenements (rundown apartments that barely meet minimum standards of safety, sanitation, and comfort) provided a very poor quality of life. While wealthy New Yorkers lived elegantly on Fifth Avenue and in other comfortable parts of the city, the areas in which the immigrants were crowded became increasingly filthy and dangerous.
When Alger arrived there were tens of thousands of homeless children in New York City. They were known as Street Arabs, since in those days many Americans associated Arabs with nomads, or wanderers. The children slept in boxes, old cars, or doorways. Many survived by begging, shining shoes, or selling newspapers or matches. There were a few institutions to provide these youths with a place to stay, among them the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) and several lodging houses built by the Children's Aid Society, where, for five or six cents a night they could get a bed and a meal. These establishments could only handle a tiny portion of the homeless children, however, and the rest had to survive on their own.
Alger wanted to help the poor children of the city. He began to interview them, studying their way of talking as they told him the sad stories of their short lives: broken homes; dead, drunken, or violent parents; and the abuse they encountered daily on the streets. Alger noted that, while most of the children he interviewed had little hope for the future, a few of them were eager to change. He believed the latter had a good chance of escaping the streets, and he decided to use his
Alger's first New York City novel, often considered his best work, was Ragged Dick, or, Street Life in New York with the Boot-Blacks (1867). Ragged Dick first appeared in 1866 as a series in the young people's magazine Student and Schoolmate. The serial was an immediate success and was published in book form the following year. It presented a side of New York City that was unknown to the majority of Americans, for at that time few had written about the ugly facts of life for children on the street, and certainly not in popular fiction.
Though it revealed the brutal world the homeless children lived in, Alger's work on the whole was far from being harshly realistic. Ragged Dick presented a charming and heroic young bootblack (shoe-shiner), Dick, within a strongly moral tale. Dick and other Alger heroes conquered the many difficulties in their lives through hard work, self-reliance, education, and above all, honesty and good character. Oddly, it was generally not the boys' own efforts that got them out of the slums, but good luck. Good luck in an Alger novel only came to those who deserved it. In most Alger stories the young hero performed a brave or honest act that attracted the attention of a kind and rich older man who then helped the young hero escape poverty.
Things to remember while reading the excerpts from Ragged Dick:
- In the first excerpt, Dick is introduced to the reader. He is seen going through his normal daily routine of waking up from his night's sleep on the city street and going off to shine shoes to pay for his food. The reader sees that Dick is charming, witty, honest, and outgoing, but has faults. If there is extra money from his day of shoe shining, Dick gambles it away or uses it to buy cigars or go to the theater. Because of this he starts each day as penniless and homeless as the day before.
- The second excerpt occurs very near the end of the novel, when Dick performs a heroic act and wins the gratitude of a wealthy gentleman. In between these two events Dick takes the steps necessary to become "spectable" (respectable) and also proves his good character.
- Early in the novel Dick offers to guide a wealthy boy, Frank, around the city while his uncle is at work. Frank gives Dick a set of presentable clothes and a place to clean up. The two boys become friends as they tour New York, and Frank tells Dick about the importance of getting an education. Dick resolves to stop going to the theater and gambling and to save his money so that some day he can be respectable. Frank's uncle gives him some money, and he rents a room. Though it is tiny, dirty, and in a very dangerous neighborhood, it is Dick's first home since his mother died when he was seven. Frank's belief in Dick has changed him forever.
- Later Dick encounters Henry Fosdick. Henry's father recently died, leaving him homeless. Henry is shy and small and doesn't get along well on the streets. Unlike the other street boys, however, he went to school and knows how to read, write, and do arithmetic. Dick invites the younger boy to live in his room with him rent-free in exchange for lessons in reading and writing. Dick is a good student and works hard at his studies, and Dick and Henry become close friends.
- Dick is popular with his customers and makes relatively good money shining shoes. He saves up his earnings, hoping he can make enough to one day take a job as a clerk. Though clerks receive less pay than bootblacks, the job is more respectable and more likely to lead to better things.
- Dick can see that Henry is not cut out for the streets or the shoe shining business. He uses the money he has saved to buy the boy a suit of clothes so that he can get a job as a clerk. Later in the story Dick uses some more of his money to help out another boy whose widowed mother is sick and cannot pay the rent.
- Not all the street children in Alger's novel are as charming or honest as Dick. One of Dick's friends, Johnny Nolan, is lazy and dull and does not try to improve his situation. Ragged Dick is constantly in conflict with Mickey Maguire, a bully who turns against Dick when he sees him in his new clothes. Mickey is hostile to anyone who strives for a better life and uses violence to attempt to bring Dick down to his level. Dick tries to avoid a fight, but when pushed he proves he can beat Mickey.
Excerpts from Ragged Dick, or, Street Life in New York with the Boot-Blacks
Chapter 1: Ragged Dick Is Introduced to the Reader
"Wake up there, youngster," said a rough voice.
Ragged Dick opened his eyes slowly, and stared stupidly in the face of the speaker, but did not offer to get up.
"Wake up, you young vagabond!" said the man a little impatiently; "I suppose you'd lay there all day, if I hadn't called you."
"What time is it?" asked Dick.
"Seven o'clock! I oughter've been up an hour ago. I know what was made me so precious sleepy. I went to the Old Bowery last night, and didn't turn in till past twelve."
"You went to the Old Bowery? Where'd you get your money?" asked the man, who was a porter in the employ of a firm doing business on Spruce Street.
"Made it by shines, in course. My guardian don't allow me no money for theatres, so I have to earn it."
"Some boys get it easier than that," said the porter significantly.
"You don't catch me stealin', if that's what you mean," said Dick.
"Don't you ever steal, then?"
"No, and I wouldn't. Lots of boys does it, but I wouldn't."
"Well, I'm glad to hear you say that. I believe there's some good in you, Dick, after all."
"Oh, I'm a rough customer!" said Dick. "But I wouldn't steal. It's mean."
"I'm glad you think so, Dick," and the rough voice sounded gentler than at first. "Have you got any money to buy your breakfast?"
"No, but I'll soon get some."
While this conversation had been going on, Dick had got up. His bedchamber had been a wooden box half full of straw, on which the young bootblack had reposed his weary limbs, and slept as soundly as if it had been a bed of down. He dumped down into the straw without taking the trouble of undressing.
Getting up too was an equally short process. He jumped out of the box, shook himself, picked out one or two straws that had found their way into rents in his clothes, and, drawing a well-worn cap over his uncombed locks, he was all ready for the business of the day.
Dick's appearance as he stood beside the box was rather peculiar. His pants were torn in several places, and had apparently belonged in the first instance to a boy two sizes larger than himself. He wore a vest, all the buttons of which were gone except two, out of which peeped a shirt which looked as if it had been worn a month. To complete his costume he wore a coat too long for him, dating back, if one might judge from its general appearance, to a remote antiquity.
Washing the face and hands is usually considered proper in commencing the day, but Dick was above such refinement. He had no particular dislike to dirt, and did not think it necessary to remove several dark streaks on his face and hands. But in spite of his dirt and rags there was something about Dick that was attractive. It was easy to see that if he had been clean and well dressed he would have been decidedly good-looking. Some of his companions were sly, and their faces inspired distrust; but Dick had a frank, straightforward manner that made him a favorite.
Dick's business hours had commenced. He had no office to open. His little blacking-box was ready for use, and he looked sharply in the faces of all who passed, addressing each with, "Shine yer boots, sir?"
"How much?" asked a gentleman on his way to his office.
"Ten cents," said Dick, dropping his box, and sinking upon his knees on the sidewalk, flourishing his brush with the air of one skilled in his profession.
"Ten cents! Isn't that a little steep?"
"Well, you know 'taint all clear profit," said Dick, who had already set to work. "There's the blacking costs something, and I have to get a new brush pretty often."
"And you have a large rent too," said the gentleman quizzically, with a glance at a large hole in Dick's coat.
"Yes, sir," said Dick, always ready to joke; "I have to pay such a big rent for my manshun up on Fifth Avenoo, that I can't afford to take less than ten cents a shine. I'll give you a bully shine, sir."
"Be quick about it, for I am in a hurry. So your house is on Fifth Avenue, is it?"
"It isn't anywhere else," said Dick, and Dick spoke the truth there.
"What tailor do you patronize?" asked the gentleman, surveying Dick's attire.
"Would you like to go to the same one?" asked Dick, shrewdly.
"Well, no; it strikes me that he didn't give you a very good fit."
"This coat once belonged to General Washington," said Dick, comically. "He wore it all through the Revolution, and it got torn some, 'cause he fit [fought] so hard. When he died he told his wider [widow] to give it to some smart young feller that hadn't got none of his own; so she gave it to me. But if you'd like it, sir, to remember General Washington by, I'll let you have it reasonable."…
Chapter 26: An Exciting Adventure
… On Wednesday afternoon Henry Fosdick was sent by his employer on an errand to that part of Brooklyn near Greenwood Cemetery. Dick hastily dressed himself in his best, and determined to accompany him. The two boys walked down to the South Ferry, and, paying their two cents each, entered the ferry boat.
They remained at the stern, and stood by the railing, watching the great city, with its crowded wharves, receding from view. Beside them was a gentleman with two children—a girl of eight and a little boy of six. The children were talking gayly to their father. While he was pointing out some object of interest to the little girl, the boy managed to creep, unobserved, beneath the chain that extends across the boat, for the protection of passengers, and, stepping incautiously to the edge of the boat, fell over into the foaming water.
At the child's scream, the father looked up, and, with a cry of horror, sprang to the edge of the boat. He would have plunged in, but, being unable to swim, would only have endangered his own life, without being able to save his child.
"My child!" he exclaimed in anguish, "Who will save my child? A thousand—ten thousand dollars to any one who will save him!"
There chanced to be but few passengers on board at the time, and nearly all these were either in the cabins or standing forward. Among the few who saw the child fall was our hero.
Now Dick was an expert swimmer. It was an accomplishment which he had possessed for years, and he no sooner saw the boy fall than he resolved to rescue him. His determination was formed before he heard the liberal offer made by the boy's father. Indeed, I must do Dick the justice to say that, in the excitement of the moment, he did not hear it at all, nor would it have stimulated the alacrity with which he sprang to the rescue of the little boy.
Little Johnny had already risen once, and gone under for the second time, when our hero plunged in. He was obliged to strike out for the boy, and this took time. He reached him none too soon. Just as he was sinking for the third and last time, he caught him by the jacket. Dick was stout and strong, but Johnny clung to him so tightly, that it was with great difficulty he was able to sustain himself.
"Put your arms round my neck," said Dick.
The little boy mechanically obeyed, and clung with a grasp strengthened by his terror. In this position Dick could bear his weight better. But the ferry-boat was receding fast. It was quite impossible to reach it. The father, his face pale with terror and anguish, and his hands clasped in suspense, saw the brave boy's struggles, and prayed with agonizing fervor that he might be successful. But it is probable, for they were now midway of the river, that both Dick and the little boy whom he had bravely undertaken to rescue would have been drowned, had not a row-boat been fortunately near. The two men who were in it witnessed the accident, and hastened to the rescue of our hero.
"Keep up a little longer," they shouted, bending to their oars, "and we will save you."
Dick heard the shout, and it put fresh strength into him. He battled manfully with the treacherous sea, his eyes fixed longingly upon the approaching boat.
"Hold on tight, little boy," he said. "There's a boat coming."
The little boy did not see the boat. His eyes were closed to shut out the fearful water, but he clung the closer to his young preserver. Six long, steady strokes, and the boat dashed along side. Strong hands seized Dick and his youthful burden, and drew them into the boat, both dripping with water.
"God be thanked!" exclaimed the father, as from the steamer he saw the child's rescue. "That brave boy shall be rewarded, if I sacrifice my whole fortune to compass it."…
What happened next …
At the novel's end, the father of the rescued boy does not give Dick (who has by then taken the name Dick Hunter) $10,000. Instead he hires Dick as a clerk in his large business, with promise of promotion if Dick applies himself and does a good job. Dick reappears as a wealthy man in later volumes by Alger.
Alger wrote well over one hundred books for boys. Critics did not like most of his novels, but the public—adults as well as children—loved them. Many well-known writers, politicians, and other influential people of later years admitted to having eagerly read Horatio Alger's books as children. In all, more than 200 million copies of his books were sold, an extremely large number for that time.
The public's literary tastes gradually changed. By the time of Alger's death in 1899, his books were often ridiculed for their simplistic moralizing and their similar plots. Most of his works went out of print (were no longer being published) by the early twentieth century.
In 1947 the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans was formed to honor Americans who had risen from poverty to success. It gives out millions of dollars annually in scholarships to promising young people from poor backgrounds. The association promotes free enterprise and industry using Horatio Alger's writings as its basis. The association's Web site said of the novelist: "Through his body of work, Horatio Alger, Jr., captured the spirit of a nation and helped to clarify that spirit."
Did you know …
- In one scene in Ragged Dick, the character Johnny Nolan hides in fear when he sees a gentleman approaching, telling Dick that the man had once sent him to live with a farming family in the western United States. This was a reference to the so-called orphan trains of the Children's Aid Society of New York City, which was founded in 1852 by Methodist minister Charles Loring Brace (1826–1890). The Children's Aid Society began helping New York's homeless children by providing cheap lodging houses, trade schools, and night schools for them. Loring eventually grew dissatisfied with the society's methods, however, noting that the children needed family care. He then began running the orphan trains, sending the children to places in the West where they were raised by farm families. These trains continued operating well into the 1920s, transporting hundreds of thousands of homeless children to farms across the nation. Though some children were saved from a harsh life in the slums by this practice, there were problems. Some of the families were only interested in getting free laborers to work on their farms and treated the children as servants or slaves. Other children were physically and mentally abused by their assigned families. Another problem arose as a result of the lack of respect for the Catholic religion held by Brace and his Methodist associates. They removed the children of poor immigrant Catholics and placed them with Protestant farming families so the children could be raised Protestant. This enraged many Catholics, and the Catholic church responded by building its own institutions for orphaned or runaway children.
- The lack of aid for homeless and mistreated children became front page news in 1874. That year social worker Etta Angel Wheeler found a ten-year-old girl in New York City who had been severely beaten and abused by her caretaker. At that time there were no laws to protect children from abuse. Though many of the girls' neighbors were shocked by what they saw and heard, no one knew how to remove her from the custody of the abusive caretaker. Finally Wheeler convinced the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to intervene on the child's behalf. They did, and the little girl was removed from the abuser's home and raised by Wheeler's sister. Because of this incident, in 1875 the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was established. Soon other states created similar agencies to protect children from abuse and neglect.
Consider the following …
- What signs do you see in the excerpts that Dick is smart and headed for success?
- Can you think of some of the reasons that critics of later decades called Horatio Alger's recurring rags-to-riches theme overly simplistic?
For More Information
Cashman, Sean Dennis. America in the Gilded Age: From the Death of Lincoln to the Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. New York and London: New York University Press, 1984.
Scharnhorst, Gary, and Jack Bales. The Lost Life of Horatio Alger, Jr. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.
Smith, Page. The Rise of Industrial America: A People's History of the Post-Reconstruction Era. Vol. VI. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984.
Kanfer, Stefan. "Horatio Alger: The Moral of the Story." City Journal (autumn 2000). This article can also be found online at http://www.city-journal.org/html/10_4_urbanities-the_moral.... (accessed on July 6, 2005).
Alger, Horatio. "Ragged Dick, or, Street Life in New York With the Boot-Blacks." Authorama. http://www.authorama.com/ragged-dick-1.html (accessed on July 6, 2005).
Geck, John A. "The Novels of Horatio Alger, Jr." University of Rochester Libraries. http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/cinder/Horatiomain.htm (accessed on July 6, 2005).
Seaburg, Alan. "Horatio Alger." Unitarian Universalist Historical Society. http://www.uua.org/uuhs/duub/articles/horatioalgerjr.html (accessed on July 6, 2005).