Today is the birthday of Horatio Alger, a prolific nineteenth century writer of novels for boys which became known as the “rags to riches” stories. Alger had been writing and publishing boy’s stories in magazines for ten years when, in 1868, he wrote Ragged Dick, or Street Life in New York with the Boot Blacks. It was serialized in a children’s magazine and was an instant success. The fan mail poured in, so at the end of the last serialized installment, Alger wrote, “Those who have felt interested in [Ragged Dick’s] early life will find his history continued in a new volume, forming the second of the series, to be called Fame and Fortune.”1 Fame and Fortune was followed by Rough and Ready. Rough and Ready was followed by Luck and Pluck. Alger was on a roll, the publisher was happy, and thousands of boys read the stories with breathless interest as they emerged from Alger’s pen, sometimes as many as three a year, until they numbered over one hundred.
They were not well written. The writing wasstilted. They were repetitive and moralizing, filled with cliches and disjointed episodes. But in spite of all that, the truth of the matter is, that the story, and it was just one story, in all it’s one hundred plus manifestations, was immensly popular, and the story of success which the novels promoted became an abiding concept of American culture, known as the American Dream; the idea that in the United States anyone, no matter where they are from or how poor they are, can, through hard work, the development of a virtuous character, and frugality, rise to riches and fame.
That these books expounded a rags to riches theme is, however, a myth. In the first place, the boys never become rich. The books deal with the struggle toward respectability and the hope for riches, but the fantasy of great wealth is never realized. Rags to respectibility would be a better phrase to describe the transformation of the hero.
Also, it isn’t through diligence, virtue, and frugality that Alger’s heroes become respectable. The boys do work hard and they are virtuous, but in the end it is always a piece of luck that is actually the cause of the rising to respectability. One critic has noted, “In Alger’s arithmetic of luck and pluck, the former always greatly outweighed the latter….Our hero comes to the right place at the right time to catch a thief, or to aid in an accident or to help a stranger who has a reward to offer,”2
The validity of the American Dream, that anyone who works hard and is virtuous can achieve wealth, has had several reality checks in the past hundred years, but the fact is, even Horatio Alger knew it also took a stroke of luck.
Sources1 Tebbel, John, From Rags to Riches, Horatio Alger, Jr., and The American Dream.
2 Klein, Marcus. Easterns, Westerns, and Private Eyes, American Matters, 1870-1900. p. 23.
Copyright 2004 © Rita Smith
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