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Your great grandfathers read them by the fistful.  Even your grandfathers probably read at least a few of them.  But the days when Horatio Alger was one of the most widely read authors in America have long since passed.  Alger's message--that by dint of hard work, decent morals, good manners and a hefty serving of luck, any American boy can rise from rags to riches--is so clearly anathema to the literati that his dismissal by the critics and the continuing refusal to treat his work as anything other than simple-minded boosterism was virtually foreordained.

However, you would think that Alger's novels would warrant greater scrutiny simply for their obvious cultural impact.  It is not an overstatement to say that it is likely that every significant man of business, politics, literature and academia in America in the early decades of this century had read the works of Horatio Alger.  How can you hope to understand these men and the America that they forged if you ignore the one author who was most likely a formative influence on them?  More than that, it is certainly the case that except for a couple of decades of despair brought on by the Great Depression, it is, has been, and seems sure to remain, the uniquely American idea that anyone can succeed.  It is amazing the number of times you will hear folks  from foreign countries speak about how this perception of unlimited possibilities is something that you only find in America (Howard Evans on Booknotes one night springs to mind).  This after all is why we are the one nation that welcomes immigrants.  Other countries assume that immigrants will just get on the dole and stay there; we assume they will not only succeed, but will flourish.  Alger is certainly not the originator of these belief, but his millions of books must have contributed something to this entrepreneurial spirit that informs the national soul.

Besides that, they are just fun.  There is something refreshing about Alger's straightforward, unmannered writing style.  The mere absence of all of the modern stylistic devices that so often make reading modern novels a chore, makes reading the books a pleasure.  Besides, who doesn't get a vicarious thrill reading about a good boy making good.  And, beneath the outer layers of poverty, Alger's heroes are enormously appealing; here's his description of Richard "Ragged Dick" Hunter:

    Dick's appearance as he stood beside the box was rather peculiar. His pants were torn in several
    places, and had apparently belonged in the first instance to a boy two sizes larger than himself. He
    wore a vest, all the buttons of which were gone except two, out of which peeped a shirt which
    looked as if it had been worn a month. To complete his costume he wore a coat too long for him,
    dating back, if one might judge from its general appearance, to a remote antiquity.

    Washing the face and hands is usually considered proper in commencing the day, but Dick was
    above such refinement. He had no particular dislike to dirt, and did not think it necessary to remove
    several dark streaks on his face and hands. But in spite of his dirt and rags there was something
    about Dick that was attractive. It was easy to see that if he had been clean and well dressed he
    would have been decidedly good-looking. Some of his companions were sly, and their faces
    inspired distrust; but Dick had a frank, straight-forward manner that made him a favorite.

There is a reason that the term "Horatio Alger story" lives on in our lexicon.  The concept touches something deep within our psyche, confirming something that we desperately want to believe about individuals and about the type of world and society that we live in.

Let the critics ridicule them, but when we stop believing in the power and the truth of the Alger myth, we will cease to be a great nation.


Grade: (B)


See also:

Children's Books
Book-related and General Links:
    -The Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans
    -Horatio Alger Society
    -LINKS: Horatio Alger, Jr. Resources
    -ETEXTS: The Horatio Alger Digital Repository
    -ETEXT: Ragged Dick, or, Street Life in New York
    -ANNOTATED ETEXTS: Horatio Alger, Jr. (Self-Knowledge)
    -ESSAY: Rags to Riches to Rap (Richard Todd, Worth Magazine)
    -REVIEW: of MABEL PARKER; OR, THE HIDDEN TREASURE A Tale of the Frontier Settlements. By Horatio Alger Jr.  (Nina Baym, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: BRING BACK THAT OLD SANDLOT NOVEL (Mark Harris, NY Times Book Review)