Horatio Alger could be called the father of the American Dream. His novels about poor boys who achieve success through hard work and determination are the classic examples of the rags-to-riches ideal. But in a post-bank bailout world, the American Dream is a much harder sell than it used to be. Perhaps it was a myth all along, propagated by a man who himself is the stuff of myths like these.
Alger’s writing was driven by his desire to reform wayward youth by building their character.
Some believe Alger’s compassion for the thousands of “street urchins” in New York City in the late 1860s prompted him to create his stories filled with “proper advice” for succeeding. The truth is that his reason for coming to the Big Apple in the first place was that he fled his post as a pastor in Brewster, Mass., the same day his church accused him of molesting two young boys. Instead of being a noble enterprise, Alger’s writings were more likely an attempt to atone for his “secret sin.”
After coming to New York, Alger was a staunch child advocate the rest of his life.
It is true that in the late 1800s, Alger was one of the most prominent voices for abandoned children in New York City, NY. However, bearing in mind his past, it is worth asking how appropriate it was for an admitted child molester to take in children off the street to live with him. Regardless, toward the end of his life Alger famously said, “I gave up my room on 34th Street because I had too many young callers who were unwelcome … For this reason please don’t tell them where I am.”
The idea that poor children can escape poverty by trying hard enough is realistic.
In reality, this was extremely unlikely to happen in Horatio’s time, and it’s not much truer now. According to the Urban Institute, up to 60% of children born into poverty will stay there through childhood. Of those, more than 30% will be poor through early adulthood.
Alger’s life was a rags-to-riches story.
Some readers may have been under the impression that Alger’s own background was the inspiration for his tales of boys starting out in poverty and achieving wealth. In fact, Alger’s childhood was quite comfortable. The son of a minister and a descendant of a Constitutional Convention delegate, Alger studied the classics, attended prep schools, and eventually went to Harvard.
Alger’s heroes were self-made.
Amazingly, a staple of Horatio Alger stories was wealthy benefactors who gave the heroes gifts and helped them on their way, thus contradicting the basis of the idea of a self-made man achieving success through hard work. Dick, the star of Alger’s Ragged Dick series and his most famous creation, once said in a story, “I’d like it if some rich man would adopt me, and give me plenty to eat and drink and wear, without my havin’ to look so sharp after it.”
The heroes of Alger’s stories worked hard.
“Working hard” is a very subjective phrase that is open to interpretation. We expect “hard work” as Alger sees it to be enterprises like digging ditches or coal mining. Instead, he seems to mean something akin to the “hard work” a day trader does; in other words, white collar work. Take Alger’s novel Do and Dare: A Brave Boy’s Fight for Fortune. The hero’s “fight” involves being hired by a rich benefactor who gives him money to invest in a mine that pays off and makes the hero rich. That’s not really practical help for poor kids.
Alger was correct in thinking hard work automatically translates to success.
Let’s examine the numbers to dispel this myth. A recent study found that Mexicans are the hardest-working people in the world, working nearly 10 hours per day on average. They also happen to have the highest level of relative poverty among developed countries, at 20%.
Alger thought hard work is all you need.
Alger sidestepped this opportunity gap by providing his heroes one brilliant stroke of luck that changes their lives, like rescuing a beautiful young girl from being crushed by a safe falling out of a window. And wouldn’t you know it, the girl’s father is so thankful he lavishly rewards the poor hero with money/a job/his daughter’s hand. “Pluck and luck,” Alger called it. If only there were one falling safe and one wealthy heiress for every poor person in America dreaming of a better life.
Alger’s heroes were poor.
Surely, at the very least, it can’t be a myth that the poor boys in Alger’s stories were actually poor, can it? Alas, as professor and writer Alvin Schorr pointed out, Alger’s boys did not know the meaning of poverty. Unlike the polite, plucky heroes of the books, people in true poverty are generally uneducated, non-white, and uncultured. Alger’s heroes primarily experienced “episodes” of a shortage of money, but with education, wealthy family members or acquaintances, and knowledge of etiquette, they always had the means to succeed at their fingertips.
Alger believed in every aspect of the American dream.
A cursory study of Alger’s books reveals Alger probably did not believe in a key part of the American Dream: the idea that it lies within the grasp of any man or woman, regardless of race. In the 100+ stories he wrote, every protagonist is a white male. Apparently Alger did think races like the “heathen Chinee” could succeed in America, only not through honest work but through “craft and deceit.”
Alger’s popularity and number of published titles must mean he was a skilled writer.
Although at the height of his popularity he was as widely-read as Mark Twain, Alger has since been called “the most terribly bad of writers.” For his part, Twain loathed Alger’s writing and even penned a parody story called The Good Little Boy, in which an Algeresque hero does all the right things but in the end gets blown up.