The Raggedy Boys’ Bard: Horatio Alger and the American Dream

BY Jeff Minick TIMEFebruary 13, 2023 PRINT

For 50 years, his name was a household word.

Horatio Alger Jr. (1832–1899) was the creator and chief proponent of the “rags to riches” story. Once his writing career took off, he put out over a hundred novels, most of them aimed at adolescents. They were tales of street urchins and poor young men who by dint of their virtue, education, hard work, and enterprise broke free of their poverty, often with the aid of a rich patron who rewarded them for some brave deed of rescue.

Alger’s influence was profound. His books were read by countless young Americans. The renowned journalist Heywood Broun called the author’s stories “simple tales of honesty triumphant,” and comedian and film star Groucho Marx said: “Horatio Alger’s books conveyed a powerful message to me and many of my young friends—that if you worked hard at your trade, the big chance would eventually come. As a child I didn’t regard it as a myth, and as an old man I think of it as the story of my life.”

Not all have viewed his work so favorably. In “Poor Little Stephen Girard,” Mark Twain satirized Alger’s poor-boy-makes-good stories, and later writers and critics attacked his work as formulaic, which it is, and false in its premises. His books were already losing popular appeal when the Great Depression struck, seeming to put an end to the Algeresque formula that sweat, honesty, and ambition equaled success.

Yet even now, Alger’s vision inspires countless Americans.

The Small Man With the Big Message

Horatio Alger Jr
Faded portrait of Horatio Alger Jr. from 1880. Library of Congress. (Public Domain)

Unlike his characters, Horatio Alger never knew poverty firsthand, though his father, a Unitarian minister, had faced financial ruin and often had trouble making ends meet. At 16, Alger entered Harvard University, of which he later recorded: “No period of my life has been one of such unmixed happiness as the four years which have been spent within college walls.”

On earning his degree in 1852, he turned to writing as his livelihood, and then teaching. But later, failing to support himself in these endeavors, he entered Harvard Divinity School and graduated in 1860.

Deemed unfit for service in the Union Army—Alger was sickly most of his life and was only 5 feet, 2 inches tall—he served in war-related work until 1864, when he was ordained and accepted a position at a church on Cape Cod. In 1866, he resigned his post and departed for New York City.

First serialized in a magazine in 1867, Alger’s “Ragged Dick, Or Street Life in New York With the Boot-Blacks,” appeared in book form in 1868 and became an immediate hit. This novel, which the author hoped would bring attention and help to the swarms of homeless children on New York’s streets, also served as Alger’s template for the scores of stories that came afterward.  These books sold millions of copies both during and after Alger’s lifetime, the proceeds of which he often donated to charitable works intended to improve the lives of children.

Alger spent his final years living with his sister in Natick, Massachusetts, where his impaired health and frequent depression affected his ability to write. On his instructions, after his death his sister burned his letters and personal papers.

From Rags to Respectability

"Ragged Dick" by Horatio Alger Jr.
Cover of the 1895 Henry T. Coates and Company edition of “Ragged Dick” by Horatio Alger Jr. (Public Domain)

“Ragged Dick,” which is one of the few Horatio Alger books remaining in print, is as simple in its storyline as in its prose.

Richard Hunter, who goes by the nickname Ragged Dick, is a 14-year-old living on the street and making his way as a shoeshine boy. He has some bad habits—“I am afraid he swore sometimes, and now and then he played tricks on unsophisticated boys from the country”—and he throws away most of his earnings on shows at places like the Bowery Theater and on gambling.

On the other hand, he is honest—“He would not steal, or cheat, or impose upon younger boys, but was frank and straight-forward, manly and self-reliant.” Throughout the novel, he has several opportunities to swindle others, but he always rejects that option. He’s also kind to the bootblacks who are younger or inept at their trade, springing for a meal or offering them encouragement.

Shoeshine Boy
Alger wrote tales of street urchins who broke free of their poverty. “Shoeshine Boy,” 1891, by Karl Witkowski. Oil on canvas. Private Collection. (Public Domain)

Several times, his honesty and generosity bring returns. After treating the orphan Henry Fosdick to a meal, for example, and then offering him a place in his newly acquired room, the barely literate Dick discovers that Fosdick can read and write, and strikes a bargain with him, offering him a permanent place in his quarters in exchange for lessons. The two boys team up, open bank accounts with their paltry earnings, save their money, and slowly begin the long haul out of poverty.

Others also respond to Dick’s truthfulness and resourceful spirit. Having promised a Mr. Greyson to bring him change for a ten-cent shine, Dick eventually fulfills that obligation, an act that leads him to Mr. Greyson’s church and Sunday school, with a Sunday lunch with Greyson’s family in the bargain. Later, it is Greyson who helps Henry Fosdick by way of recommendation to procure a job as a store clerk.

Dick’s best break comes at the end of the novel, when he rescues a 6-year-old boy who has fallen from a ferry. The boy’s father, who owns a counting room, a sort of combination bank and accounting office, offers Dick a job. In the last lines of “Ragged Dick” is this exchange between Henry and Dick:

“When, in short, you were ‘Ragged Dick.’ You must drop that name, and think of yourself now as”—

“Richard Hunter, Esq.” said our hero, smiling.

“A young gentleman on the way to fame and fortune,” added Fosdick.

Helping Hands

Tuckered out shoeshine boy
“Tuckered Out —The Shoeshine Boy,” circa 1888, by John George Brown. Oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Mass. (Public Domain)

Young readers of “Ragged Dick” and Alger’s other stories were shown steppingstones to success: aspirations, a virtuous character, an education, a willingness to work hard and to open the door to opportunity when it came knocking, and a heart for the less fortunate, all aided by the blessings of good fortune. Here’s just one example: When Dick takes a job for a day escorting a wealthier country boy, Frank, on a tour of the city, Frank’s father gives Dick one of his son’s suits. That change of clothing and his conversations with Frank about education give Dick a new outlook on his life, a belief in the possibility that he might someday attain Frank’s status.

Though critics accuse Alger of painting a false picture of the benefits born from Ragged Dick’s attributes and mock the writer’s focus on individual effort, Alger recognized the part played by others in that arduous climb out of the gutter, the mentors who help Dick—and who help the rest of us as well.

In the Author’s Preface, Alger explicitly emphasizes this need for assistance, writing that he hopes his books will “have the effect of enlisting the sympathies of his readers in behalf of the unfortunate children whose life is described, and of leading them to co-operate with the praise-worthy efforts now made by the Children’s Aid Society and other organizations to ameliorate their condition.”

Making the Most of One’s Life

Painting of shoeshine boys
“Shoeshine Boys,” 1889, by Karl Witkowski. Oil on canvas. Private collection. (Public Domain)

To most fiction, we bring a set of natural prejudices. Readers who enjoy fast-paced action, an eccentric hero, and suspense will probably find a home in Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series; those who prefer more sedate stories will instead open Jane Austen.

Aside from those connoisseurs who might dislike “Ragged Dick” for its literary imperfections, some may argue that “Ragged Dick” seems little more than a preachy, bogus fantasy. Yet Alger’s vision of work, virtue, and personal responsibility meshed with the American Dream of his time. Even today, this dream survives, as can be seen by the many immigrants coming to our country, the shelves of self-help books that by their very genre speak of individuals taking charge of their own lives, and the pride that so many Americans still take in their work and achievements.

“I’ll go to work and see what I can do,” says Dick in a conversation with Frank about education.

There’s the Alger ethic. And there’s the dream that still lives.

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Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va.
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