Horatio Alger Jr., was a prolific and popular writer of juvenile books and serials for boys in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Alger's works were characterized
by Populist themes, including social mobility and industrial patronage that represented significant departures from the heavy-handed morality works of his predecessors in children's literature and codified the “rags-to-riches” narrative that became so prevalent at that time.
In 1866, fifteen months after accepting his ministerial post, Alger was forced to resign amid charges of sexual misconduct with some boys in the parish. Alger did not deny the charges and submitted a letter of repentance to Unitarian officials in Boston. Alger left Brewster after promising never to seek any further posting in the church.
Alger arrived in New York City in 1866. All around him were throngs of young males socioeconomically disenfranchised from the larger financial systems of the city. Before arriving in New York, Alger had already penned a juvenile novel, Charlie Codman's Cruise (1866), which reflected the typical Alger formula. Moreover, the plight of the “street boy” inspired Alger; he not only became involved in charities designed to help the poor, he also began writing about them in earnest. In 1867 Alger serialized the story that would become his most famous book, Ragged Dick; or, Street Life in New York with the Boot-Blacks, in Oliver Optic's influential Student and Schoolmate magazine. The book was released by Loring in 1868 and became an instant success for Alger.
Ragged Dick tells the story of the eponymous hero, actually named Richard Hunter, a hardworking boot-black who rises above his station and achieves middle-class respectability. Alger's hero, Ragged Dick, is typical of his novels’ protagonists. Dick is a cheerful, industrious lad who is brought to low circumstances by means beyond his control. Still, his pluck, determination, and general good character catch the eye of several possible benefactors around him, and, conversely, these older men often work to aid Dick, sometimes by throwing extra business his way, sometimes by encouraging him or giving him something of use, and, eventually, with one particular individual becoming Dick's mentor and patron.
Alger's importance to the Populist movement in the late-nineteenth-century United States is often directly connected back to Ragged Dick. While Alger was not the first writer for juveniles to stress social mobility as a direct outcome for his heroes, he both demarcated and popularized the genre, reaching audiences who had never before considered the possibility of rising above their own stations. Indeed, the essentially American rags-to-riches story can be traced back to Alger and the popularity of his works; the generic formula would go on to inform most of Alger's writing output after 1866. Though the details of his novels would vary, his larger theme remained virtually unchanged, and thus generations of Americans were raised on the notion that economic despondency was not as intractable as popular juvenile culture had previously depicted.
The success of Ragged Dick propelled Alger to write five more books in what is now termed the Ragged Dick series, including two that included Ragged Dick as a recurring character: Fame and Fortune: or, The Progress of Richard Hunter (1868) and Mark, the Match Boy; or, Richard Hunter's Ward (1869). A prolific writer, Alger published and republished more than 100 books, mostly written for boys and reflecting the same formula established in Ragged Dick. Among the most prominent of these are his Luck and Pluck series (four volumes, from 1869 to 1872) and the Tattered Tom series (four volumes, 1871 to 1872), which included one volume featuring a female Alger hero, the only of his works written for juveniles to include a female protagonist.
Alger wrote prolifically throughout his life. When sales of his books began to lag, he moved his heroes away from New York and the Northeast and brought in new themes related to the growing interest in depictions of the American West. Alger wrote about boys adventuring in Colorado, mining in California, and, in one notable volume, searching for gold in Australia. Alger also continued to work with various boys’ and moral charities and even acted as a mentor and patron to three street boys, educating them and arranging for positions in particular trades.
After 1880, Alger's works dwindled in popularity, partly because of the repetitious nature of their plots and partly because of changing tastes in literary conventions and social mores. Alger continued to write, however, in part because he needed the money. He often sold his works outright for a flat fee and thus was never made wealthy by his writing. Stricken by ill health in 1896, Alger returned to Massachusetts to live with his sister and her husband, unable to complete his last book, Out for Business. Thus he contacted the writer Edward Stratemeyer and requested that he finish it for him. Stratemeyer did, ultimately “completing” 11 books that were published under Alger's name.
Michael G Cornelius
See also: Gilded Age
Cawelti, John G. “From Rags to Respectability: Horatio Alger.” In Apostles of the Self-Made Man. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965.
Karrenbrock, Marilyn H. “Horatio Alger, Jr.” In Glenn E. Estes, ed. American Writers for Children before 1900. The Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Bruccoli Clark, 1985.
Scharnhorst, Gary, and Jack Bales. Horatio Alger, Jr.: An Annotated Bibliography of Comment and Criticism. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1981.
Scharnhorst, Gary, and Jack Bales. The Lost Life of Horatio Alger, Jr. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.