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Horatio Alger, Jr. was a prolific late nineteenth-century American writer of more than one hundred books for children, most of which feature young orphaned heroes and heroines who are born penniless and must face harsh urban living and working conditions. His enormously popular ”rags to riches” stories are closely identified with the American Dream: through shrewdness and hard work his protagonists avoid poverty and crime and become wealthy and respectable middle-class citizens. He is also remembered as a child labor activist; in both his life and work, he advocated for improved conditions for children living in urban slums.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Illness and Home Schooling
Horatio Alger, Jr., was born on January 13, 1832, in Chelsea, Massachusetts. His father was a Unitarian minister and a noted writer of biblical commentary, and his mother was the daughter of a well-known and prosperous businessman of Chelsea. Alger was the eldest of five children.
Alger was a sickly child and therefore did not receive formal schooling until the age of ten. During his early education at home, he enjoyed reading and became acquainted with a wide variety of books.
Economic Hardship and Further
Schooling In the late 1830s Horatio Alger, Sr. fell into debt, and in April 1844 his lands were assigned to Carpenter Staniels, who perhaps was the prototype of the hardhearted squire who forecloses the mortgage in so many of Alger’s novels. The family moved in December 1844 to Marlborough, Massachusetts. Marlborough was a pleasant town, which the younger Alger was to remember with affection and use as a model for many country towns in his books. Although primarily an agricultural center, it also was noted for the manufacture of shoes in small, unmechanized factories. In later years, many of Alger’s protagonists worked either on farms or in cobbler shops such as he had seen in his boyhood. Alger attended school in Marlborough for two years and entered Harvard College in 1848, when he was sixteen.
Harvard and First Publication
During his college career, Alger was already evincing an interest in writing. While in college, he wrote to novelist James Fenimore Cooper, praising his work and requesting his autograph. Cooper’s influence can be seen in some of Alger’s books, especially his later works set in the West. Alger also called upon Henry Wadsworth Longfellow while in college, an event that he later indicated influenced his writing of poetry.
Alger entered Harvard Divinity School in 1853 with the intent of becoming a minister, but he withdrew after a few months to become assistant editor of the Boston Daily Advertiser. For the next four years, Alger taught in various preparatory schools and wrote for multiple news papers. His first book Bertha’s Christmas Vision: An Autumn Sheaf (1856) was published by Brown, Bazin and Company. In 1857, Alger again entered the Divinity School at Cambridge.
Success with Children’s Literature
Alger graduated from Divinity School in 1860. In September of that year, he traveled to Europe with two other men, visiting the British Isles, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and France, and wrote several travelogues based on his experiences.
After returning to the United States in April 1861, Alger preached in Dover, Massachusetts, tutored in Cam bridge, and taught in schools in Nahant, Massachusetts. As the United States descended into civil war between Union and Confederate forces, he was drafted by the Union Army in 1863, but was exempted because of his small stature and poor eyesight.
In 1864 Alger published his first juvenile novel, Frank’s Campaign. He found that it was easier to achieve a reputation with children’s literature than with adult literature because there were fewer juvenile authors. He also found that his juvenile novel was better received and better paid than its predecessors. Alger decided to dedicate himself to succeeding in a new genre.
A Writing Life in the City
Alger’s Campaign series proved popular enough for him to write two more volumes. These books show the early development of the author’s trademark complexity of plot, touches of humor, and leisurely pace. The New York setting and the liberal use of coincidence to advance the plot are all typical of Alger. The books are also the first juvenile example of one of Alger’s chief themes: the poor boy who makes good. The protagonists rise ”from rags to respectability.”
In 1868, the Loring Company began publication of Alger’s six book Ragged Dick series, the most famous of which being Ragged Dick; or, Street Life in New York With the Boot-Blacks (1868), Fame and Fortune; or, The Progress of Richard Hunter (1868), and Rough and Ready; or, Life Among the New York Newsboys (1869). These stories, both in serialized and book form, were enormously popular, and remain the most well-known of Alger’s work.
Although there are stock characters in Alger’s books, many of the boys in these books were drawn from real life, including Rough and Ready, whom Alger met at the Newsboys’ Lodging House. Minor characters in the
Ragged Dick series, such as Johnny Nolan, the unambitious bootblack, and Micky Maguire, the street tough, were also modeled on real street boys. Alger supported Brace’s Children’s Aid Society and sought to help the boys that he encountered through his volunteer work at the Newsboys’ Lodging House. Many of the New York City novels mention the Lodging House, and Mark, the Match Boy, gives a detailed explanation of how it was run. Alger was interested in moral reform movements and was active in charitable missions among the street boys of New York.
Further Child Advocacy and Changes in Content
In 1872, Alger made a personal contribution to the child welfare movement. His interest was aroused by a particular group of street boys, whom he described as ”young Italian musicians, who wander about our streets with harps, violins, or tambourines, playing wherever they can secure an audience.” These boys were victims of the padrone system. The padrone bought the services of poor Italian peasant boys from their parents, taught them basic musical skills, and brought them to America. They were expected to wander the city streets, collecting money for their owners through their performances. Alger gathered information about the system and wrote Phil, the Fiddler; or, The Story of a Young Street Musician. Alger’s intention in writing the book was to expose the padrone system and to show, as he put it in the preface, ”the inhumane treatment which [the boys] receive from the speculators who buy them from their parents in Italy.”
In 1874, Alger published a second Tattered Tom series, which expressed Alger’s continued interest in the work of the Children’s Aid Society. The group provided a relocation program that helped street boys find positions in the West, where there were plenty of jobs available for young men. Several of the books written during this period draw on Alger’s teaching experience for episodes that gently satirize the educational process.
Alger’s Brave and Bold series also made its debut in 1874. In all four books, Alger continued his turn away from stories of street life. As his sales slipped, the books became more disjointed and melodramatic. In an effort to bolster sagging sales, Alger began to travel to gather material about settings other than New York and the Northeast. His book sales did not increase, however, and Alger turned to writing moderately successful biographies of James A. Garfield, Daniel Webster, and Abraham Lincoln.
During the last two decades of his life, Alger practiced what he had preached in so many books; he became a patron for three poor boys whom he educated and set up in a trade. He found it more difficult to do his charitable works as sales of his books continued to dwindle and his income decreased. In 1896, Alger suffered a nervous breakdown; he wrote very little thereafter. He retired to South Natick, Massachusetts, where he lived with his sister, Olive Augusta Cheney, and her husband, until his death in 1899.
Works in Literary Context
The American Dream
Alger wrote during a period when America was viewed as a promised land for individuals who believed success and wealth could be won by hard work. The expansion of the labor force and the rise of mechanized industry, however, resulted in low wages, squalid working conditions, and the construction of grim and unsound tenement buildings that housed the urban poor. Characters such as Ragged Dick and Phil the Fiddler, finding success and wealth in the streets of New York, represent the concept of the American Dream in a positive light, yet are often attacked by critics as misrepresenting the realities of nineteenth-century urban America.
The Spirit of Social Reform
Alger sought to explore the effects of modernity and mechanization on children specifically, and gathered much of his information from the social reformers and journalists of his day. While other American writers, such as the humorist Mark Twain, had used children as fictional protagonists, few had placed these protagonists in modern urban settings. Alger’s unique choice of character and setting would influence later American realist writers such as Theodore Dreiser and Upton Sinclair, who exposed social inequalities within cities and large industries.
Lone Orphan in a Hostile World
His characters Ragged Dick and Tattered Tom emerge from a long literary tradition of individualism, and this theme is perhaps most influenced by the works of Charles Dickens. In books like Oliver Twist and Bleak House, Dickens featured orphans who are left to the mercy of corrupt social or legal systems, and whose only defenses against these injustices are to remain pure in mind and action. As in many of Alger’s books, these heroes or heroines find (after a series of trials and temptations) that they are actually of noble rather than “low” birth, leaving the reader to question whether the author is making a correlation between morality and class.
Works in Critical Context
Because Alger’s books feature redundant characters, plots, and themes, his works are most often discussed by critics in a historical or cultural rather than literary context. Scholars also face the problem of the sheer volume of works Alger produced; it is nearly impossible to cite all of his books, and thus critics usually compress their discussions of Alger to broad themes or settings. As Quentin Reynolds says in The Fiction Factory (1955), ”Alger, according to his biographer, Herbert R. Mayes, wrote 119 books. Actually, he wrote one book and rewrote it 118 times.”
During Alger’s lifetime critics paid scant attention to his work; not only were the books considered pulp potboilers, but the fact that they were written for children at a time when children were not considered sophisticated readers prohibited serious attention. Still, his works received occasional reviews in various publications. An unsigned reviewer for Putnam’s Magazine in 1868 praised Ragged Dick as ”a well-told story of street-life in New York, that will, we should judge, be well received by the boy-readers, for whom it is intended.” However, a reviewer for The Nation in 1869 found the author’s Rough and Ready lacking in realism, noting that ”who ever bases his notions of the newsboy’s character on a belief in the truthfulness of Mr. Alger’s romance will get false notions of the character of the average newsboy.” S. S. Green, in an 1879 essay for the Library Journal discussing the books of Alger and William T. Adams, states of these works, ”They are poor books. Poor as they are, however, they have a work to do in the world. Many persons need them. They have been written by men who mean well.”
According to Frank Luther Mott’s estimate in Golden Multitudes (1947), Alger’s greatest popularity came after his death. His sales reached their zenith during the first two decades of the twentieth century, when his books were published in cheap editions and when the temper of the country favored their message. As mechanization increased at the turn of the century, readers prized the plucky protagonists put forward by Alger.
Critics generally agree that Alger’s Ragged Dick and Tattered Tom series constitute his finest work. Alger’s extensive knowledge of New York City and the North east, combined with the firsthand experience of the streets which he gained from his mission work, result in credible accounts of street boys’ lives in the nineteenth century.
- Gardner, Ralph D. Horatio Alger, or The American Hero Era. Mendota, Ill.: Wayside Press, 1964.
- ”Horatio Alger, Jr. (1832-1899).” Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Edited by Laurie Lanzen Harris and Emily B. Tennyson. Vol. 8. Detroit: Gale Research, 1985, pp.13-19.
- Hoyt, Edwin P. Horatio’s Boys: The Life and Works of Horatio Alger, Jr. Radnor, Pa.: Chilton Book Company, 1974.
- Mayes, Herbert R. Alger: A Biography Without a Hero. New York: Macy-Masius, 1928.
- Mott, Frank Luther. Golden Multitudes: The Story of Best Sellers in the United States. New York: R. R. Bowker, 1947.
- Reynolds, Quentin. The Fiction Factory, or From Pulp Row to Quality Street. New York: Random House, 1955.
- Scharnhorst, Gary and Jack Bales. The Lost Life of Horatio Alger, Jr.. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1985.
- Tebbel, John. From Rags to Riches: Horatio Alger, Jr., and The American Dream. New York: Macmillan, 1963.
- Bales, Jack. ”Herbert R. Mayes and Horatio Alger, Jr.; or The Story of a Unique Literary Hoax.” Journal of Popular Culture 8 (Fall 1974): 317-319.
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