Horatio Alger, Jr.
Horatio Alger, Jr. (January 13, 1832–July 18, 1899) was a 19th-century American author who wrote 135 dime novels.
Many of his works have been described as rags to riches stories, illustrating how down-and-out boys might be able to achieve the American dream of wealth and success through hard work, courage, determination, and concern for others. He is noted as a significant figure in the history of American cultural and social ideals.
Though often repetitive, Alger's novels remain popular. As bestsellers in their own time, Alger's books rivaled those of Mark Twain in popularity.
Alger was born in Chelsea, now Revere, Massachusetts, to a stern Unitarian minister who wanted his son to follow him into the religious world. He was admitted to Harvard at age 16; there he studied under Henry Wadsworth Longfellow with the intention of one day becoming a poet. Following graduation he took a ten-month tour of Europe, where he finally made his decision to pursue the ministry.
After attending Harvard Divinity School, in 1860, Reverend Alger took a position as minister of the First Parish Unitarian Church of Brewster on Cape Cod, but left for New York City rather suddenly, ostensibly to pursue a career in writing. Church records uncovered after Alger's death indicate that he was quietly dismissed for having sexual relations with several teenage boys in his parish.
Later in life, Alger wrote a poem, "Friar Anselmo's Sin," which seems to be somewhat autobiographical. It begins:
- Friar Anselmo (God's grace may he win!)
- Committed one sad day a deadly sin;
The poem goes on to recount the friar's rendering of aid to a wounded traveler, and ends with Anselmo's redemption upon the appearance of an angel who exhorts Anselmo to dedicate himself to service:
- Thy guilty stains shall be washed white again,
- By noble service done thy fellow-men.
The move to New York was a turning point in Alger's career. He was immediately drawn into the work of impoverished young bootblacks, newspaper boys, and peddlers. It was this world, coupled with the moral values Alger received at home, that formed the basis of the first novel in his Ragged Dick series (1867). The book was an immediate success, spurring a vast collection of sequels and similar novels, including Luck and Pluck (1869) and Tattered Tom (1871), all with the same theme: the rise from rags to riches. In fact, the theme became synonymous with Alger, whose formula for success was based on luck, pluck, and virtue.
Essentially, all of Alger's novels are the same: a young boy struggles through hard work to escape poverty. Critics, however, are quick to point out that it is not the hard work itself that rescues the boy from his fate, but rather some extraordinary act of bravery or honesty, which brings him into contact with a wealthy elder gentleman, who takes the boy in as a ward. The boy might return a large sum of money that was lost or rescue someone from an overturned carriage, bringing the boy — and his plight — to the attention of some wealthy individual.
In addition, few if any of the boy-heros in his tales ever achieve wealth. Although "Horatio Alger story" has come to signify someone who begins with few resources and ends with vast riches, his protagonists typically achieve comparatively low-level jobs in companies, often ending as clerks or in roles we would describe as "entry level." They are more about getting to the first rung in the climb to urban middle class status than about fantasies of hitting the mother lode.
Despite his remarkable literary output, Alger never became rich from his writing. He gave most of his money to homeless boys and in some instances was actually conned from his earnings by the boys he tried to help. Nevertheless, by the time he died in 1899, his books could be found in virtually every home and library in America. His books may no longer be as popular today as they once were, but the moral messages they relayed were an important factor in the development of the American dream in the 20th century.
At the time of his death, Alger was living with his sister Augusta in Natick, Massachusetts. She destroyed all of his personal papers, hoping to avoid scandal in the rigid atmosphere of the Victorian era. Today, however, his name appears on some compiled lists of purported homosexuals.
Since 1947, the Horatio Alger Association has bestowed an annual award on "outstanding individuals in our society who have succeeded in the face of adversity" and scholarships "to encourage young people to pursue their dreams with determination and perseverance".
The Mayes biography
In 1928, a man named Herbert R. Mayes published the book Alger: A Biography without a Hero, which purported to be a biography of the well-known author based on his diaries. However, in reality those diaries did not exist; Mayes simply made up anecdotes to fill in the gaps in his knowledge of Alger's life. Those stories ranged from the merely speculative — for example, Mayes made Alger's father into a stern, repressive personality who contributed to Alger's repressed homosexuality later in life — to the bizarre. In the latter category, Mayes had his 26-year-old Alger run off to Paris rather than gratify his father with a job in the clergy. Later, in New York, the fictional Alger adopts a young Chinese boy named Wing and cares for him until Wing is conveniently killed by a runaway horse. Mayes said in 1972:
- "If Alger ever kept a diary, I knew nothing about it. In any case, it was more fun to invent one. I had no letters ever written by Alger, which was fortunate. Again, it was more fun to make them up, as it was with letters presumably sent to Alger, none of which I had ever seen."
Mayes' fictional biography went virtually unquestioned until the 1960s. In 1961, amateur Alger enthusiast Frank Gruber published Horatio Alger, Jr.: A Biography and Bibliography, challenging Mayes' account, and this challenge was followed by Ralph D. Gardner's similarly fact-based 1964 Horatio Alger, or the American Hero Era. (Ironically, these biographies were ill received by many critics who preferred the "research" evidenced by Mayes-based books such as John Tebbel's 1963 From Rags to Riches: Horatio Alger and the American Dream.) In the 1970s, Mayes finally admitted the hoax, but statements and anecdotes from A Biography without a Hero continue to turn up in poorly researched biographies even today. Reliable alternatives include Gary Scharnhorst's Horatio Alger, Jr. (1980) and Carol Nackenoff's The Fictional Republic: Horatio Alger and American Political Discourse (1994).
Mayes also made up several book titles for his faked bibliography.
- Abraham Lincoln: the Backwoods Boy; or, How A Young Rail-Splitter Became President (1883)
- Adrift in New York; or, Tom and Florence Braving the World (1904)
- Adrift in the City; or, Oliver Conrad's Plucky Fight (1902)
- Andy Gordon; or, The Fortunes of a Young Janitor (1909)
- Andy Grant's Pluck (1902)
- Ben Bruce. Scenes in the Life of a Bowery Newsboy (1901)
- Ben Logan's Triumph; or, The Boys of Boxwood Academy (1908)
- Ben's Nugget; or, A Boy's Search for Fortune (1882)
- Ben The Luggage Boy; or, Among the Wharves (1870)
- Bernard Brooks' Adventures. The Story of a Brave Boy's Trials (1903)
- Bertha's Christmas Vision. An Autumn Sheaf (1856)
- Bob Burton; or, The Young Ranchman of the Missouri (1888)
- Bound to Rise; or, Up the Ladder (1873)
- A Boy's Fortune; or, The Strange Adventures of Ben Baker (1898)
- Brave and Bold; or, The Fortunes of Robert Rushton (1874)
- The Cash Boy (1887)
- Cast Upon the Breakers (1893)
- Charlie Codman's Cruise. A Story for Boys (1866)
- Chester Rand; or, A New Path to Fortune (1903)
- The Cousin's Conspiracy
- Dan, the Detective (1884)
- Dean Dunham; or, The Waterford Mystery (1891)
- A Debt of Honor. The Story of Gerald Lane's Success in the Far West (1900)
- Digging for Gold. A Story of California (1892)
- The Disagreeable Woman; A Social Mystery (1895)
- Do and Dare; or A Brave Boy's Fight for Fortune (1884)
- Driven from Home (1889)
- The Erie Train Boy (1890)
- The Errand Boy; or, How Phil Brent Won Success (1888)
- Facing the World; or, The Haps and Mishaps of Harry Vane (1893)
- Fair Harvard (book) (1852)
- Falling in With Fortune; or, The Experiences of a Young Secretary (1900)
- Fame and Fortune; or, The Progress of Richard Hunter (1868)
- A Fancy of Hers (1892)
- Finding a Fortune (1904)
- Five Hundred Dollars; or, Jacob Marlowe's Secret (1890)
- Forging Ahead (1903)
- Frank and Fearless; or, The Fortunes of Jasper Kent (1897)
- Frank Hunter's Peril (1896)
- Frank's Campaign; or, What Boys can do on the Farm for the Camp (1864)
- From Canal Boy to President; or, The Boyhood and Manhood of James A. Garfield (1881)
- From Farm Boy to Senator: Being the History of the Boyhood and Manhood of Daniel Webster (1882)
- From Farm to Fortune; or Nat Nason's Strange Experience (1905)
- Grand'ther Baldwin's Thanksgiving (1875)
- Grit, The Young Boatman
- Hector's Inheritance; or, The Boys of Smith Institute (1885)
- Helen Ford (1866)
- Helping Himself; or, Grant Thornton's Ambition (1886)
- Herbert Carter's Legacy; or, The Inventor's Son 1875)
- In a New World; or, Among the Gold-Fields of Australia (1893)
- Jack's Ward; or, The Boy Guardian (1875)
- Jed, The Poor House Boy (1899)
- Jerry the Backwoods Boy; or, The Parkhurst Treasure (1904)
- Joe the Hotel Boy, or Winning Out by Pluck (1906)
- Joe's Luck; or Always Wide Awake (1913)
- John Maynard: A Ballad of Lake Erie January (1868)
- Julius; or, The Street Boy out West (1874)
- Lester's Luck (1901)
- Lost at Sea; or, Robert Roscoe's Strange Cruise (1904)
- Luck And Pluck; or, John Oakley's Inheritance (1869)
- Luke Walton; or, The Chicago Newsboy (1889)
- Making His Way (1901)
- Marie Bertrand (1864)
- Mark Manning's Mission. The Story of a Shoe Factory Boy (1905)
- Mark Mason's Victory; or, The Trials and Triumphs of a Telegraph Boy (1899)
- Mark Stanton (1890)
- Mark the Match Boy; or, Richard Hunter's Ward (1869)
- Ned Newton; or, The Fortunes of a New York Bootblack (1890)
- Nelson the Newsboy; or, Afloat in New York (1901)
- A New York Boy (1890)
- The New Schoolma'am; or, A Summer in North Sparta (anonymous 1877)
- Nothing to Do: A Tilt at Our Best Society (1857)
- Nothing To Eat (1857)
- Number 91; or, The Adventures of a New York Telegraph Boy (1887)
- The Odds Against Him; or, Carl Crawford's Experience (1890)
- Only an Irish Boy; Or, Andy Burke's Fortunes and Misfortunes (1894)
- Out for Business; or, Robert Frost's Strange Career (1900)
- Paul Prescott's Charge: A Story for Boys (1865)
- Paul the Peddler; or the Fortunes of a Young Street Merchant (1871)
- Phil the Fiddler; or, The Story of a Young Street Musician (1872)
- Ragged Dick; or, Street Life in New York with the Bootblacks (1868)
- Ralph Raymond's Heir; or, The Merchant's Crime (1869)
- Randy of the River; or, The Adventures of a Young Deckhand (1906)
- Risen from the Ranks; or, Harry Walton's Success (1874)
- Robert Coverdale's Struggle; or, On the Wave of Success (1910)
- A Rolling Stone; or, The Adventures of a Wanderer (1902)
- Rough and Ready; or, Life Among the New York Newsboys (1869)
- Rufus and Rose; or, The Fortunes of Rough and Ready (1870)
- Rupert's Ambition (1899)
- Sam's Chance; and How He Improved It (1876)
- Seeking His Fortune, And Other Dialouges (1875)
- Shifting for Himself; or, Gilbert Greyson's Fortune's (1876)
- Silas Snobden's Office Boy (1899)
- Sink or Swim; or, Harry Raymond's Resolve (1870)
- Slow and Sure; or, From the Street to the Shop (1872)
- The Store Boy; or, The Fortunes of Ben Barclay (1887)
- St. Nicholas (novel) (1875)
- Strive and Succeed; or, The Progress of Walter Conrad (1872)
- Striving for Fortune; or, Walter Griffith's Trials and Successes (1902)
- Strong and Steady; or, Paddle Your Own Canoe (1871)
- Struggling Upward; or, Luke Larkin's Luck (1868)
- Tattered Tom; or, The Story of a Street Arab (1871)
- The Telegraph Boy (1879)
- Timothy Crump's Ward; or, The New Years Loan, And What Became of It (1866)
- The Tin Box
- Tom, The Boot Black
- Tom Brace: Who He Was and How He Fared (1901)
- Tom Temple's Career (1888)
- Tom Thatcher's Fortune (1888)
- Tom Tracy (1888)
- Tom Turner's Legacy (1902)
- Tony the Hero (1880)
- Tony, The Tramp
- The Train Boy (1883)
- Try and Trust; or, The Story of a Bound Boy (1873)
- Victor Vane, The Young Secretary (1894)
- Voices of the Past (1849)
- Wait and Hope; or, Ben Bradford's Motto (1877)
- Wait and Win. The Story of Jack Drummond's Pluck (1908)
- Walter Sherwood's Probation (1897)
- A Welcome to May May (1853)
- The Western Boy; or, The Road to Success (1878)
- The World Before Him (1902)
- Wren Winter's Triumph
- The Young Acrobat of the Great North American Circus (1888)
- The Young Adventurer; or, Tom's Trip Across the Plains (1878)
- The Young Bank Messenger (1898)
- The Young Boatman of Pine Point (1892)
- The Young Book Agent; or, Frank Hardy's Road to Success (1905)
- Young Captain Jack; or, The Son of a Soldier (1901)
- The Young Circus Rider; or, The Mystery of Robert Rudd (1883)
- The Young Explorer; or, Among the Sierras (1880)
- The Young Miner; or, Tom Nelson in California (1879)
- The Young Musician; or, Fighting His Way (1906)
- The Young Outlaw; or, Adrift In The Streets (1875)
- The Young Salesman (1896)
- Scharnhorst, Gary, and Jack Bales (1981). Horatio Alger, Jr.: An Annotated Bibliography of Comment and Criticism. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 0810813874.
- Scharnhorst, Gary, with Jack Bales (1985). The Lost Life of Horatio Alger, Jr.. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0253149150.
- Working poor
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