HORATIO ALGER, JR.
By E.M. Sanchez-Saavedra
If any Nineteenth Century author for young people is remembered today, albeit as a stereotype, the name “Horatio Alger, Jr.” ranks high in recognition. Often the subject of lampoons, or a symbol for the fast-receding American Dream of “Rags to Riches,” Alger has become a byword for success. Prestigious awards for career achievement bear his name. Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs have both been dubbed Alger heroes.
Ironically, the success and recognition won by his fictional heroes eluded the flesh-and-blood author during his lifetime, although his serials and hardbound books sold moderately well. Alger himself estimated that he earned about $100,000.00 in thirty years of hard labor. Only when the cheap reprint houses got hold of the Alger canon did sales skyrocket into the millions, years too late to benefit their unassuming creator.
Alger’s biography has been a nightmare for later researchers thanks to a hoax perpetrated by Herbert R. Mayes in 1928. Entitled Alger: A Biography Without a Hero, his book remained the standard reference work on Alger until serious historians reexamined the work and found most of it to be pure cynical invention. Mayes lamely tried to excuse his book as a humorous attempt to “debunk” history that got out of hand, but the fact remains that he crippled legitimate biographic and bibliographic efforts for decades. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that Alger instructed his sister to destroy all his papers at his death. The preeminent Alger collector of the 1950s, Ralph D. Gardner, wrote a volume on Alger in 1964, Horatio Alger, or The American Hero Era, but loaded it with fictitious dialogue and unverifiable assertions. Not until Gary Scharnhorst and Jack Bales published The Lost Life of Horatio Alger, Jr. in 1985, did Alger receive proper biographical treatment.
The son and namesake of a Unitarian minister, Horatio Alger, Jr. was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts in 1832. A short, slight youth, he entered Harvard at age sixteen and graduated in the class of 1852. His literary career began in college, many of his pieces being signed “Carl Cantab” (the Latin abbreviation for Cambridge.) His fiction soon appeared in the New York Sun, Gleason’s Flag of our Union and other periodicals. After teaching at an academy, he followed in his paternal footsteps. From 1857 to 1860 he studied at Harvard’s Divinity School and toured Europe after graduation. His frail physique exempted him from military service, but he produced patriotic verse and prose in favor of the Union. Alger was installed as pastor of the First Unitarian Church in Brewster, Massachusetts, in December 1864. He and the ministry were not a good fit. In 1866, following serious charges, he resigned his pulpit and moved to New York, where he commenced a three-decade career as a writer of success stories for young people.
Many of his early efforts in this area first saw print in Student and Schoolmate, published in Boston by Joseph H. Allen and edited by William Taylor Adams (“Oliver Optic.”) After serialization, hardcover editions appeared under the imprint of Aaron K. Loring of Boston. Continuing his 1850s pattern, he still contributed to various story papers and periodicals, including Street and Smith’s New York Weekly, Harper’s Magazine, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Ballou’s Dollar Monthly, Our Young Folks, Munsey’s Golden Argosy and Young Israel.
It has been said that Alger wrote one book and then repeated it 120 times. While there is more than a germ of truth in this quip, it is not fair to an author who produced dozens of enjoyable stories for several generations of appreciative readers. Aside from tutoring private students, Alger’s sole source of income was his fiction, and he generally had three or four serials going simultaneously. From the 1880s onward, he adroitly shuffled about a dozen plot incidents into various permutations in book after book, and only a long time reader would get a sense of déjà vu in the middle of a new Alger volume. Except for the characters in his first dozen stories, all Alger heroes were basically interchangeable in their physical appearance, character and sense of honor. This was standard operating procedure at the time and no one thought any less of Alger because of it. Most of his stories are quite entertaining, incorporating a gentle humor and a wealth of classical erudition, although his writing style can be a bit pedestrian.
His best work came at the beginning, with the 1868 publication of Ragged Dick; or, Street Life in New York, and five subsequent volumes about New York City street children. The “Tattered Tom” and “Luck and Pluck” series followed, including tales of rural boys who defeated the miserly “squire” by paying off the mortgage on the family farm. There were also young heroes who saved their widowed mothers from evil suitors, schoolboys who triumphed over incompetent headmasters and classroom bullies, bank messengers and shop clerks who foiled robbery attempts, young pioneers who prospered in the California “diggings,” and kidnap victims who turned the tables on their abductors. One of his most memorable characters is the anti-hero Sam of The Young Outlaw (1875), who deflates hypocritical old Deacon Hopkins and several other overblown egos. After a series of misadventures, Sam eventually redeems himself in a sequel, Sam's Chance.
From his own small town New England childhood Alger knew the quasi-rural environment well, but the neglected, abused and abandoned children who swarmed New York City’s slums were Alger’s special interest. For the rest of his life he assisted them to the extent of his slender means. He informally adopted and educated several youths, who grew up to be respectable citizens. The charitable Newsboy’s Lodging House received considerable attention in his books, as did the “emigrant trains” of city waifs who were adopted by western families. His personal acquaintance with street children lent a slightly more three-dimensional aspect to his stories of Ragged Dick, Mark the Match Boy, Ben the Luggage Boy and Rough and Ready the Newsboy. In addition, a contemporary reader could take a copy of Ragged Dick and use it as a Baedecker-style guide to downtown New York City. Alger also exposed many of the commoner swindles a greenhorn might encounter in Gotham.
Although implied violence always lurked on the fringes in his early books set in the notorious Five Points, competition from “red-blooded dime novels” led Alger to include ever more overt conflict in his serials for the New York Weekly and eventually in his hardcover series as well. His books landed among the dubious works deemed unfit for wholesome children by various reform groups.
Perhaps the chief fault in Alger’s vision of the American dream was the essential element of pure dumb luck and coincidence. His heroes are uniformly stalwart, clean-living, well-set-up young chaps with a shine on their resoled shoes, patched (but clean) garments, smiles on their winsome faces and a night-school education between their ears. Unfortunately, these sterling attributes contribute little to their initial advancement. Only when they save a merchant’s child from a runaway, train wrecks, drowning, falling out a window, kidnappers and other calamities, or just happen to overhear a robbery plot in an oyster saloon and warn the householder, do they set foot on the first rung of the ladder of success. Several characters were abducted in infancy from wealthy families and brought up in poverty. "Jed the Poorhouse Boy" turns out to be an English peer! An improbable coincidence invariably reconnects the hero with his long-lost relations. (And there is usually an ousted presumptive heir to make things sticky.)
The alliterative “rags to riches” slogan sounds fine, but Alger’s boy heroes rarely end up fabulously wealthy. Instead they achieve solid middle class respectability, with the promise of a comfortable income and a happy home. Admittedly, if the young hero turned out to be an incompetent ignoramus, his entry-level job would become his lifetime career, but once his foot is in the door, the “nobleman in rags” makes the most of his opportunity.
In spite of deteriorating health, Alger continued to write several books each year until shortly before his death in 1899. Several unfinished manuscripts appeared in book form posthumously. These were completed by Edward Stratemeyer, who went on to compose others under Alger’s byline, in addition to his own prolific output of juvenile fiction.
Street and Smith flooded the early twentieth century market with Alger reprints in their colored cover nickel weekly, Brave and Bold, and in ten- and fifteen-cent thick books in the Medal and New Medal Library and Alger Series. Cheap hardcover editions poured from the presses of A.L. Burt, John H. Winston Co., Hurst & Co., Whitman, New York Book Co., M.A. Donohue and others.
Alger’s works have become a Rorschach Ink Blot test to succeeding generations, who endlessly reinterpret the nature of success in a multicultural society. Alger has thus served as a poster boy for everything from Social Darwinism to Male Chauvinism. Ignoring subconscious Freudian meanings common to all human beings, the truth is probably far more prosaic: Alger happened upon a formula which enabled him to sell books and earn his living. The apostle of success was too wise to argue with success, so he rehashed his Cinderella formula for the remainder of his life.
Nearly forgotten during the Great Depression, when the American Dream seemed dead, and World War II, when millions of books succumbed to patriotic paper drives, a small group of Alger fans brought this influential American author back from obscurity. To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Horatio Alger Society, a sparkling new website has recently come on line. HERE