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Horatio Alger: The Myth of the American Dream

I have a Ph.D. in biochemistry and spend my spare time designing knitting patterns and writing online.

The Horatio Alger myth

The Horatio Alger myth

Who Was Horacio Alger?

The "rags to riches" stories that Horatio Alger Jr. wrote in the late nineteenth century helped the population of the United States believe the myth that anyone could work hard and become a rich, "self-made man." His readers ignored the moral qualities of his heroes and instead focused on their success. This myth was important to the general population because as the United States became more corporate and industrialized, it became harder for people to control their fates.

I first learned about Alger in my 11th-grade American History class. I was fascinated by the images that he portrayed and spent some time reading his stories and thinking about how they impacted society. In this lens, I will explore what Horatio Alger gave our country, from cliffhanger episodes to the myth that the good will rise up.

Backstory of His Life

Horatio Alger, born in 1832, was the oldest of five children born into a middle-class family. He never experienced any of the hardships that he portrayed in his stories. During the civil war, he attempted to enlist in the Union army but was rejected many times because of his asthma and other respiratory problems. He was an honors student at Harvard. In his early adulthood, she was a Unitarian minister in Massachusetts. Alger was forced to give this up due to alleged sexual scandals with young boys. There is reason to believe that Alger was homosexual, but his sexual orientation wasn't known to the general public, so it probably didn't affect his fame at all.

His Stories

Alger wrote more than 100 stories during his lifetime, which were published by more than 70 different publishers. Many of his stories were published a chapter at a time in magazines. He was such a popular author that he often worked on 3 or 4 stories simultaneously. Since he was writing so many stories at once, Alger sometimes made mistakes in his characters' names. If you look through his stories, you can find that some of the details aren't consistent. Occasionally a magazine would run two of Alger's stories at the same time, so to avoid confusion, they would put one of them under a pen name (Silas Snobden's Office Boy is an example of this.) Alger became the bestselling author of his time, with millions of copies sold to the public.

Horatio Alger had many different reasons for writing his success stories. He hoped to influence the class that he was writing about. He wished to do this by showing them what "energy, ambition and honest purpose may achieve." He also wished to show the middle class the hardships faced by the country's poor children. Alger knew that there was luck in his stories that the average person couldn't hope to obtain. To Alger, the "modern age did not guarantee success through hard work alone; there had to be some providential assistance as well."

Morality

Alger put an emphasis on the moral values of his heroes and a lack of morals in his villains. The minor characters always saw the hero as being honest even before they knew him. A general trust was central to his stories. The majority of his readers clung to the images of success, fortune, and wealth but ignored the morals. They didn't see that much of the fortune came as a result of the good deeds that the hero did. After Alger's death, some of his stories were abridged to get rid of the hero's good deeds to please the public.

The Standard Plot

The stories that Alger wrote followed a few basic themes. The main character was generally a poor boy in his late teens who was either an orphan or had to support his mother (family) as well as himself. He could have clear enemies from the beginning of the story. He would end up in some kind of situation where he would help someone and, in return, receive money or a better job. "... the story and message were invariably the same: A poor boy from a small town went to the big city to seek his fortune. By work, perseverance, and luck he became rich."

Horatio Alger creates a hero that every child, from the time his books were written to the present, would love. "He served up heroes with whom they identified, bullies they could whip and goal they believed they might attain." The villains are dirty and scary looking whereas the heroes are clean, honest, good people.

The books are jam-packed with action and don't have much description. There are many lines to the plot, which thickens as many enemies of the main character go against him, some together. The story itself was amusing because the whole situation relied heavily on luck, but then again, most stories of this type do.

horatio-alger

Office Boy

Written under the pen name Silas Snobden

Silas Snobden's Office Boy was a quick, fun read. The writing style is one a younger child could easily read and enjoy. (Alger's stories were actually aimed at younger people. ) The lack of huge amounts of description makes the reading go quickly but there is enough description so you feel that you could know the characters. Enough detail is left out that the characters could change into those of the reader. Alger doesn't give any hair color, the biggest details are the cleanliness of the person and their approximate age and occupation. There were never full sentences of description, just clauses attached to the sentence identifying the character. Ralph D. Gardener said right before the beginning of the story, "You are going to enjoy this excursion into the tranquil, uncomplicated world of Horatio Alger." The experience of reading one of these stories is relaxing and gives the mind some ease from everyday life.

In Silas Snobden's Office Boy, Frank, the hero, met many men who were rich but had been poor in their past. Very few of the characters came from "old money" - most were self-made men. Alger's characters portray the lives that many in the late 1800s wished to have, full of adventure, financial gains, and good luck. A plain ordinary, hard-working boy managed to go from a penniless office boy to a rich Bank clerk in Silas Snobden's Office Boy. While this kind of change didn't happen to many in the times, the stories, while a little misleading, gave hope to those who read them. People are rewarded for doing good things and helping people out.

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Some of Alger's stories brought attention to important social needs of the late nineteenth century. Phil the Fiddler brought attention to the "market" of children taken from poor families in Italy. These children were brought to cities, trained as pickpockets on the streets, and had to serve masters. After this book came out, then New York state legislators made some laws preventing cruelty to children. Julius; or the Street Boy Out West (1874), brought public interest to the Children's Aid Society's project to put homeless kids in foster families across the country. After the success of Ragged Dick, Alger became an active supporter of charitable institutions that supported runaway boys.

Alger and the Self Made Man

The name Alger came to have great meaning in the late nineteenth century. The "Alger hero [became a] synonym for spectacular rise to fame and wealth." One example of his fame comes from an award that bears his name, the Horatio Alger Award. This award was created in 1947 by American Schools and Colleges Association to honor people who pulled themselves out of where they had been in society, followed the "American Tradition," and became "self-made men." Some of the winners include later presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan.

One of his stories

One of his stories

Always a Happy Ending

The stories of Horatio Alger were misleading because they caused people to believe that anyone could improve their social status. It was extremely hard to improve their situations in the workplace. It was rare that a kind, rich person would help them out by giving them money or a better job. Critics claim that through Alger's books, "he misleads kids, probably causing many who stood up to the neighborhood bully to wind up with a bloody nose." As the stories can lead you to believe, there weren't people looking to help others out everywhere, the workplace could be very competitive because everyone hoped to succeed.

Horatio Alger's novels illustrated the nation's most popular myth in the late nineteenth century that anyone could improve their social position through determination and hard work. Unlike in real life, in the stories, everything works out great. At the end of Silas Snobden's Office Boy, it says, "As for Frank, all goes smoothly with him. He is diligent in business and is likely to become a rich man." The stories give hope and comfort to those who read them because they are uplifting, unlike reality. In an Alger story, at least the hero wins "because the happy ending is what Horatio Alger is all about!"

References

The following provided the information for my thoughts in this lens. I hope you enjoyed my trip back through my old research article as much as I did!

"Alger, Horatio" Encyclopedia Britannica Online [Accessed March 8, 2001]

Alger, Horatio. The Erie Train Boy. Leyden, MA: Aeonian Press Inc., 1975. (Forward written by Ralph D. Gardener)

Alger, Horatio. Silas Snobden's Office Boy. USA: Doubleday & Company INC, 1973. (Forward written by Ralph D. Gardener)

Brinkley, Alan. American History. Boston: McGraw Hill College, 1999.

Comments and Feedback - What do you think?

CharlesDickens421 on January 09, 2018:

U do not kno de weeeyyy

Virginia Allain from Central Florida on June 24, 2011:

Well done page about this vintage author!

kimmanleyort on April 19, 2011:

You have put a lot of work into describing Horatio Alger's work and impact. Great lens and blessed by a Squid Angel.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on April 06, 2011:

Interesting character. I have heard of him but not know much so this is information for me.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on April 06, 2011:

Interesting character. I have heard of him but not know much so this is information for me.

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