Friday, October 28, 2011
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
Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Monday, October 24, 2011
In 1844 Frederick Gleason, of Boston, Mass., started the United States Publishing House. With distribution in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, Baltimore, Cincinnati and San Francisco, and taking advantage of the new steam presses, Gleason and his partner, Maturin Murray Ballou, of Boston, drowned the U.S. and Canada in a sea of sensational reading material. Ballou wrote melodramatic novels of piracy and adventure under the name “Lieutenant Murray.” He wrote Fanny Campbell; or, The Female Pirate Captain, and Red Rupert; or, The American Buccaneer. Gleason published Joseph Holt Ingraham, father of dime novel author Colonel Prentiss Ingraham, and author of Lafitte, or, The Pirate of the Gulf (1836.)
Gleason’s Flag of our Union story paper published Ned Buntline’s The Red Revenger; or, the Pirate King of the Floridas in 1844. The cover of The Red Revenger; or, The Pirate King of the Floridas showed a man in an iron suit, his flag said “War With The Whole World-- Rinard the Red Revenger” Buntline’s The Black Avenger of the Spanish Main; or, The Fiend of Blood was written in 1847 and mentioned in Tom Sawyer;
“Who goes there?”
“Tom Sawyer, the Black Avenger of the Spanish Main. Name your names.”
“Huck Finn, the Red-Handed, and Joe Harper, the Terror of the Seas.”
Much like a later western hero, Tom Mix, Buntline (real name Edward Zane Carroll Judson) suffered a lot of physical pain in his life.
“Ned Buntline probably carried more wounds in his body than any other living American. He had in his right knee a bullet received in Virginia and had twelve other wounds inflicted by sword, shell and gun, seven of which were got in battle.”
According to one writer a Dr. Marable related to him how Buntline was hung three times in the forties (“Hung Three Times,” Fulton Times 6 Sept 1882).
“Buntline, the sensational writer, you know, whose real name is Judson, or some such name, had a row with a prominent man named Porterfield, about the latter’s’ wife. Porterfield shot at Judson three times and was about to fire again when Judson said “If you do that again I’ll put a bullet through your head.” Porterfield paid no attention to his remark, but fired the fourth time, the last bullet like the others going wide of the mark. Judson raised his elbow to a level with his face, and resting his pistol upon it, took good aim and fired. The ball penetrated Porterfield’s brain and he fell dead to the ground.
Then somebody found Porterfield’s brother, put a pistol in his hand, and told him to avenge the murder. He shot at Judson twenty times while the latter was running up the capitol steps and missed every shot. The mob finally caught Judson and resolved to hang him. Taking him to a house close by, which was in process of construction, they threw a rope over one of the rafters and strung him up. Thrice he was strung up in succession and cut down under the impression that he was dead. His leg was broken by the last fall and he was unconscious. The mob left him for dead, and kind friends took him and succeeded in restoring life. I saw him afterward at Louisville, Kentucky, sometime in 1849, and had a long talk with him about the affair.
He told me that the few moments he hung each time were among the most deliriously delightful of his whole life. Beautiful lights danced before his eyes, of all hues and shades, many of them like those produced by chemical burning of watch-springs. The most gorgeous panoramas passed in review before him, each more entrancingly beautiful and distinct than the last. Exquisite landscapes, snow-capped mountains, green-clad valleys and spouting springs of sparkling water filled him with ecstasy. His whole soul was enthralled with rapture by the beauties he had spread out before his gaze. So wrapped up was he in contemplating these scenes that he hated the moment when the rope was severed and the sweet delusion dispelled. The pain came afterward when his throat purpled from the effects of the rope and he was unable to swallow.”
Newspaperman Leon Mead, whose father was a friend of the famous writer, wrote in the Binghampton Press in 1929:
“In 1853 Judson organized the “Know Nothing” or “Native American” cult, in reality a secret political order which rapidly grew into a formidable political party. It was the prototype, without the hooded mask and disguise, of the present day Ku Klux Klan, the founders of which must have borrowed many of their ideas from the Know Nothing organization, whose secret name is said to have been “Sons of ’76,” and the prescribed reply of whose members “I don’t know,” was given to all inquiries regarding their political movements.
After some notable successes at the polls the Know Nothing party went to pieces, having first split into “North Americans” and “South Americans” over the slavery question, and entirely disappeared from national politics in 1860.”
During his early career Buntline was often referred to as the successor to James Fenimore Cooper. On 23 December 1869 Buntline wrote the first Buffalo Bill dime novel, Buffalo Bill: the King of Bordermen, for Street and Smith’s New York Weekly. The Buffalo Bill stories made Cody a household name and Buntline became a rich man, reportedly making $20,000 a year from Street & Smith. Buntline and Cody became equal partners in a stage play but the venture ended in San Francisco in a violent disagreement which led to a parting of the ways between author and star.
Leon Mead met Buffalo Bill Cody many times, usually at the Hoffman House in New York.
“One afternoon I visited him while the Wild West Show was exhibiting in South Brooklyn -- and again had a meal with him in the mess tent. During the substantial repast I asked him if he did not feel at all grateful to Ned Buntline for what the latter had done with his pen in making him (Cody) a popular hero. His answer was derogatory to Buntline, against whom, it was apparent; he still carried a rather bitter brand of grudge. So far from showing that he had any sense of obligation to the dead fictioneer, Cody contended that Buntline had done him more harm than good, had placed him in a false light as a ruthless wholesale murderer of Indians which was crassly untrue, and had made many other wild statements about him that were misleading and injurious to his reputation.”
Buffalo Bill later made many early silent film westerns using real Native Americans, some of whom had been in the battle of the Little Big Horn, as actors.
Ned Buntline penned “Scouts of the Prairie,” and on 2 April 1873 during a country-wide tour, the show opened at Niblo’s Theatre on Wall Street. The play featured Buffalo Bill, Texas Jack Omohundro, and “five Injuns from Utah and five Injuns from Houston Street,” after which Ned Buntline “preached a twenty minutes’ temperance lecture and then died to slow music.”
“On examining the stage after the play, we find four hundred and eighty-two shots were fired, and that thirty-nine Houston street and Utah Injuns and four men in the orchestra have been killed. There is a great deal of talk about scal-loping, but only seven men are actually scal-loped. The play excels any play I ever saw -- excels them in stupidity. It draws well. Last night several hundred people left the house, and they said that rather than listen to the play again they would leave the city.
Texas Jack later claimed that during one touring performance, Buffalo Bill, instead of using a folding knife, stabbed him with a real knife on stage and then deserted him out west. It seems Bill Cody had been jealous of his acting abilities. The Spirit of the Times had “A Chat with Texas Jack,” accompanied by his wife Signora Morlacchi in 1877. Texas Jack was born to the name John B. Omohundro, of a French mother and a Powhattan Indian father. The legendary heroine Pocahontas was also a Powhattan.
Leon Mead described Buntline’s method of writing.
“His favorite posture while writing was on his stomach, with a rug or animal skin under him, leaning his head in one hand, and with the other, clutching a stub of lead pencil, he would dash off his fast running thoughts all day long and often far into the night. When out of any better stationary he would use light-brown wrapping paper from the grocers, his lines taking a sharp slant to the right as he wrote. He seldom revised his copy or read it over. His fecund fancy was equal to all occasions. A finer extempore speaker never walked the earth. He was so congenial a companion that the present scribe cherishes pleasant memories of numerous chats with him in different places.”
The New York World added:
“His first story, “The Captain’s Pig,” was published in the Knickerbocker Magazine under the pseudonym Ned Buntline, in 1838, when in his fifteenth year. This sketch brought notoriety to the young writer and fighter, who subsequently received as high as $60,000 a year for the product of his brain and pen. For many years his income as a story-writer brought him in $20,000 annually. He once earned $12,500 in six weeks, and at another time, under pressure, wrote a book of 610 pages in sixty-two hours, scarcely eating or sleeping in that time. He usually received $3000 for a story running through twelve weeks in the Ledger and other story papers for which he wrote. He did not know exactly how many stories he had written but estimated them at between three and four hundred, each long enough for a book.”
Buntline spent his last days on his farm at Stamford, New York where he lived with his fourth wife and family. He died there 16 July 1886. Buntline had kept a cabin on Blue Mountain Lake, in the Andironacks, which he christened “Eagle’s Nest,” where he turned out serials for the Weekly and others. After his death a stone monument to his memory was erected on the spot of his old cabin. In 1906 the spot was buried under a large club and golf-course. One of his last productions was a poem, “My Home,” written for the Journal and Republican in the summer of 1885 at Blue Mountain Lake. The last verse was
Where no step intrudes in the dense north woods,
Where no song is heard but the breeze and bird,
Where the world’s foul scum never can come,
Where friends are so few that they all are true,
There is my home --
My wildwood home!
*”The accompanying portrait of Ned Buntline, hitherto unpublished, was taken at Fredericks’ Knickerbocker Family Portrait Gallery, New York, and bears a strong resemblance to him. It is from the only photograph I have ever seen of him. He presented it to me long, long ago, and it has been in my possession ever since.” -- Leon Mead, Binghampton Press, 25th Anniversary edition, 1929.
* Thanks to Joe Rainone for the image of the New York Weekly's first Buffalo Bill serial, Buffalo Bill: the King of Bordermen, 1869.
*See also The Know-Nothing Press HERE
Sunday, October 23, 2011
NOVEL-BASED VICTORIAN MELODRAMA
By E. M. Sanchez Saavedra
On November 17, 1877, theatergoing residents of Montpelier, Vermont, were treated to a double bill by Johnston’s Theatre in the Village Hall. “The Best Bill Ever Presented in One Evening” included two popular dramas: Dion Boucicault’s “Streets of New York” and a tongue-in-cheek theatrical adaptation of Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth’s serial, “The Hidden Hand.”
The playbill from that performance encapsulates the hand-in-glove relationship between popular (sub-) literature and popular drama that has existed since the seventeenth century. Although “Streets of New York” was based upon no particular novel, its author had adapted several fictional works in his other plays, including a story by Captain Mayne Reid, and many incidents in this play had counterparts in contemporary novels.
Dion Boucicault, born in Dublin on December 26, 1822, attended London University and presented his first play in 1841 at Covent Garden Theatre. He toured the United States from 1853 to 1860, acting and lecturing. In 1860, his “Colleen Bawn” became a smash hit at the Adelphi and a string of other stage successes followed. In 1874 he returned to the U.S. where he managed several theaters, taught dramatic arts and continued to write plays. He died in New York City on September 18, 1890.
The second play was based on an 1859 serial which had first appeared in Robert Bonner’s controversial story paper the New York Ledger. Bonner, a Scotch-Irish immigrant, lived the Horatio Alger myth of rags to riches. Born in Ramelton, Co. Donegal, April 28, 1824, he immigrated to Hartford, Connecticut at age 15 and began work as a compositor for the Hartford Courant. In 1844, he moved to New York and became foreman of the New York Mirror. Here he became an innovative pioneer in display advertising art and layout. In 1851, he purchased the lackluster Merchants’ Ledger and Statistical Record, a financial paper, and transformed it into a highly successful story paper, aimed at the family. Inspired by the London Journal, the deeply religious Bonner provided female readers with a mix of romance fiction, poetry by “Fanny Fern,” advice columns and practical articles on domestic economy, child care and other topics of general interest. He renamed the paper The New York Ledger in 1855 and made it into one of America’s best-known journals. Although he allowed no advertising in his own paper, he flooded other daily and weekly papers with Ledger ads. These were startling enough to excite comment. He would purchase an entire page of the New York Tribune (or two or three or seven), for example, and place one tiny ad at the exact center, surrounded by blank space! Alternatively, he would fill the page with a short sentence, “The Ledger is full of good things,” repeated endlessly. He would publish the first chapters of a new serial in a daily paper and then promise the rest in the Ledger. By contributing to a favorite charity, or paying unheard-of sums, he would coerce “respectable” authors like Edward Everett and Henry Ward Beecher to pen an article or story for the Ledger. Charles Dickens received $3,000.00 for “Hunted Down.” By 1880, the paper had a readership of over a million.
In middle age Bonner became a horse breeder and racer and his trotters won many coveted racing trophies. He engaged in philanthropic causes, including raising funds for the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Princeton University and his own Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. He died on July 7, 1899.
His most popular regular contributor was Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte Southworth (1819-1899), whose long string of given names was quickly abbreviated to “E.D.E.N.” After her husband deserted her in 1844, she turned to fiction to support her children and herself. After establishing her reputation in serials for The National Era, she signed an exclusive contract with Robert Bonner in 1856. Unlike most novelists, she earned about $10,000.00 per annum from royalties. She produced over sixty novels. In 1859 she introduced “Capitola, the Madcap Heiress” from Virginia in “The Hidden Hand.” Bonner would reprint this serial twice and it has appeared in dozens of hardcover and paperback formats to this day.
Quickly adapted for the stage, “The Hidden Hand” became a mainstay of touring companies. Like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” also first serialized in The National Era, several companies specialized in the play, including “Whiteley’s Original Hidden Hand Company,” managed by Harry M. Clark, calling it “The Greatest Sensational Drama Ever Written.”
Capitola, an unconventional and spunky female character, was unique for her milieu and suited Bonner’s editorial policy admirably. Unlike “Big Lize,” Ned Buntline’s boozy whore with a heart of gold, in his Mysteries and Miseries of New York, Capitola was a chaste and virtuous Virginia aristocrat who was forced to make her way in a hostile world. Her marriage provided the happy ending required by readers in the Family Circle who had agonized over her fictional tribulations.