Have you ever noticed that when politicians are running for office they have a story to tell about how they grew up? It usually involves how they came up from nothing, or if that is not true, it is about the hardships they conquered to get where they are. The idea of mobility is part of the American ideal. Stories that start with a hard scrabble childhood and lead to vast riches and success through perseverance and hard work are popular with the American people. Politicians like to play into that as much as possible in an attempt to have us like them.
These stories are found throughout American history. Benjamin Franklin, Stephen Girard, Marshall Field, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Carnegie, James Garfield, John Rockefeller, Sam Walton, Oprah Winfrey, and R. A. Dickey are just a few examples of people who rose to great success from humble beginnings.
The man who popularized those stories of American rags to riches, Horatio Alger, is less well known today than the idea associated with his name. Horatio Alger was a 19th century writer whose tales of hard luck youth rising up are often linked to the value of social and economic mobility that many associate with the United States American dream.
Horatio Alger was born on January 13th, 1832 to a Unitarian Minister in Chelsea, Massachusetts. He grew up in genteel poverty, well-educated and of the right background but with financial concerns. In 1845 his family moved from Chelsea to a new church in Marlborough, Massachusetts after a bankruptcy. Things went a bit better in Marlborough and young Horatio was able to attend a local preparatory school, Gates Academy, so that he could try and pass college entrance exams. Young Alger also began writing poems and stories during these years that he was able to publish in local papers.
Horatio Alger passed entrance exams for Harvard College in 1848. He did well in his studies there and continued to write. Several of his pieces were published in national magazines. While at Harvard, he also determined that he wanted to be a poet or, secondarily, a literary writer.
As is often the case with college graduates, after his commencement in 1852, Horatio Alger’s desires met reality and they had to be revised. While he was able to get pieces published, both poetry and stories, he was not able to earn a living as a writer. Therefore, Alger broadened the magazines he applied to and worked on pieces that were less literary. He also sought other means of employment.
Alger briefly returned to Harvard to contemplate his next steps and wound up taking a job at a paper in Boston. He lasted a couple months editing copy, but he did not think he was suited for newspaper work. He finally took a job teaching at a boarding school and continued to write on the side. He was successful at getting stories published in magazines and even had a book of poetry published that received good reviews but did lousy sales.
When the school where he was working closed, Alger took a summer position as principal of another school and then returned to Boston and worked as a private tutor. He continued to be published in respected local and national magazines. He put out another book of poetry. Still, he was unable to earn a living as a writer. He finally decided to follow his father into the ministry.
Alger went back to Harvard and graduated from the Theological School in 1860. During the Civil War Alger was drafted and then rejected for service due to his nearsightedness and his short stature. Instead, he wrote poems and articles in favor of the Union cause. It was during the Civil War years that he also made an important decision. Alger acknowledged to himself and others that his dream of literary success would not be realized and he decided to write children’s books in an attempt to achieve financial success as a writer.
Horatio Alger took a job as a pastor at First Unitarian Church in Brewster, Massachusetts in 1864. The job as a minister led to the most disturbing incident of his life and career. Alger’s personal papers were destroyed at his request upon his death so his part of the tale will never be known. Letters from the church to others indicate that he left his position in 1866 because of a scandal. He was accused of some kind of sexual misconduct with one or more boys in his parish. Alger left the post immediately and his Father stepped in to save his reputation.
The parish was at first uncertain how to handle the crisis. A letter from Alger’s Father, which did not deny the charges, proposed that Alger would never again work as a minister if charges were not pressed against him. Again, Alger’s papers were destroyed, but it does not appear that he denied the charges and he never served as a minister again, even though he took jobs later in life to supplement his writing income.
After the scandal, Horatio Alger moved to New York City and for the first time was able to eke out a living as a writer. His decision during the Civil War to turn to children’s fiction had begun to pay off before the scandal in Brewster. He was able to get his first children’s book, Frank’s Campaign, published in late 1864 and it was considered a financial success.
Over the next three years he wrote three more children’s books which were well received but not big money makers. In 1867 he wrote a story for Student and Schoolmate magazine titled Ragged Dick; or Street Life in New York. It was later developed into a book which became Alger’s greatest financial success and the basis for the bulk of the rest of his career. Ragged Dick is the tale of a young boy who shines shoes for a living; he is a boot-black. While the young boy, Dick, is homeless and lives a tough life, he maintains his moral compass and eventually that leads to his reaching the lowest rung on the ladder of success. He becomes a respectable young man in a counting house.
Ragged Dick was the peak of Alger’s writing career. Alger struck while the iron was hot and churned out story after story following the successful formula of the first book. This formula was simple; a young boy through hard work and morality gets a break (usually from a wealthy older gentleman) and is able to go from poverty to the first rung of respectability. His stories were not, in fact, about moving to great riches, just to the first rung of the ladder. It was only after Alger’s death that the connection to his name came to be associated with the idea of rags to riches.
The formula worked for the next several years, but never achieved the financial success of the original. Sales fell off and tastes changed. Alger tried writing with limited success in a more sensational style. Eventually, he had to take employment as a tutor to supplement his writing. His tutoring was successful and he was good at getting his pupils into elite schools.
At various points Alger tried to publish adult writing, sometimes seeing positive reviews but never selling well. Alger focused on quantity of writing to maximize his earnings. As a result, his work was sometime accused of being sloppy. He wrote a biography for children of President James Garfield immediately after Garfield’s death in 1881 that sold well, however, it was not researched and contained many errors. After two hastily prepared biographies of Abraham Lincoln and Daniel Webster, Alger gave up the practice.
There were no more sexual scandals in Alger’s life or, it appears, accusations of misconduct. Alger never married. He became known for his charity work once he moved to New York City. He raised money for boy’s houses and tried to help orphans. This work is, of course, now colored by the information about his time at the Brewster church.
Horatio Alger worked up until 1896, three years before his death. His passing was not widely mourned. However, his writing experienced resurgence at the turn of the century until the 1920s. He sold more books during that period than he had sold during his lifetime. The idea of the Horatio Alger hero surpassed the actual man in life. A set of awards, the Horatio Alger Awards, is still given out annually in honor of people who, despite adversity, rise through the free market.