In a sense it was an ideology of corporatism. Horatio Alger was attributed a philosophy which was whittled down to its commonest denominator in mass media. Success manuals touted bourgeoisie values: hard work, frugality, loyalty to employers. If a man failed, the fault lay within himself, not society. The rich were virtuous by definition.
”The Progressive Era, which began in 1890 and lasted until about 1913, spawned fundamental social and political changes that transformed the character of post-Civil War America. Agriculture, industry, and transportation all rushed to meet the evolving needs of the nation although these three entities often found themselves at odds with one another. Many Horatio Alger-esque, “common” men–farmers and industrial laborers in particular–feared that no matter how hard they worked, big business would prevent them from significantly bettering their lots. Historian Howard Zinn summarizes the conflict thus: “Labor struggles could make things better, but the country’s resources remained in the hands of powerful corporations whose motive was profit, whose power commanded the government of the United States.’ ”
As the books of Horatio Alger tumbled out,they attracted wide attention; letters for Alger poured into the Newsboys’ Lodging House from all parts of the country. But the books did not earn much money for the author. At the height of his reputation, Alger still had to piece out his income by tutoring schoolboys in French and Latin. The trouble seems to have been that Alger never learned to be a businessman on the model of his heroes and that he sold most of his books outright for modest sums instead of demanding royalties. Finally, he made what might have been the ultimate sacrifice for an author by selling the right to use his name. With the use of his name, he sold his dream of being inspired to produce a novel that would find a place ‘, in the company of fine writing”.
He left behind a bartered name, and his books for boys which can be read with some interest today. The style is formal to the point of burlesque, but correct except for a few Yankeeisms and absolutely clear; it shows the results of Alger’s classical training. Humor apart, the Alger books offer curious picture of American culture after the Civil War. In the rather bleak world to which they introduce us, there is no art whatever,except that sometimes a young girl plays ”Hearts and Flowers” on a square piano. There is no learning beyond the need to read and cipher and there is no history. Though Alger was an ordained clergyman, there is hardly a trace of religious feeling in his novels.
Its a world in which everything has its cash value, and a boy who earns ten dollars a week rightly considers himself twice as good as a boy earning half as much. All behavior is monetized. When Mr. Rockwell’s only son falls overboard from the Brooklyn ferry, in ”Ragged Dick” he cries from the depths of his anguish, ”My child, who will save my child? A thousand, ten thousand dollars to anyone who will save him!” Dick plunges into the East River, thus achieving fame and what Alger regarded as a fortune.
For all its bleakness, Alger’s world is suffused with the optimism and faith in human nature of America in the Gilded Age. It is also suffused with a deep feeling of equality; family doesn’t matter, national origin matters a little, but not a great deal; in the end nothing matters but money, and the honest newsboy has a better chance to earn it than the banker’s idle son.
It is true that Alger presents an obvious case of arrested development. He did not write down to boys. All the emotions in his novels are those proper to a pre-adolescent stage of development; rivalry with other boys, shame at wearing patched clothes, daydreams of running away, a possessive love for the mother, and rebellion against the wicked squire, who becomes a father symbol. Apparently, these are Alger’s emotions, obsessively relived instead of being merely remembered. The heroes are compensatory projections of the author, who dreamed of being as resolute as each of them, but who never disengaged himself from a painful family pattern, never, that is, except in the books he wrote for eternal boys like himself.
At a certain level, every popular novel is a myth or a fairy tale, and sometimes a very old one. The myth or tale is especially apparent in Alger’s books, but it is not a tale one expects it to be. The tale that Alger repeats is different from a tale of rags to immense riches; not the grasping robber barons of Andrew Carnegie or John D. Rockefeller, but based instead on the Greek myth of Telemachus. This is the supposed orphan who is forced to leave home and who sets out in search of a father. It is eventually the father’s power, not his own, that restores him to his rightful place.
InAlger,s version of the myth the hero is always fatherless and is always a boy of noble principles; though he plays the part of a shoe shiner or newsboy, his manner betrays his princely nature. He meets a stranger, always a widower or a bachelor, who turns out to be a rich and kindly merchant. He buys new clothes and send him on a mission, a sort of knightly quest. On the boy’s return, the merchant settles on him a little fortune, usually of ten thousand dollars, and adopts him as a son, nephew or ward. There is a fairy tale logic to the story. The hero is of course, a prince in disguise, and he gains his little fortune by discovering the place and parentage that are his by right. The he rushes home to help his mother. In ”Sink or Swim” the hero arrives on the very morning of the day that his mother is t
Virtue has been rewarded, vice punished, and the whole operation has been pecuniary. In its preoccupation with exact sums of cash, and in that alone, the Alger fable resembles the typical American success story an enacted in fiction or life. But, there is a difference even here; money is not loved for its own sake. The Alger hero will never be truly rich, since he has a generous spirit that makes him incapable of clawing and gouging his way into a palace. Money in the Alger novel is a symbol of emotional security, affection, and manly power.
The real theme of the Alger novel is not pecuniary but filial and paternal. Alger revenges himself on his father by killing him, making the hero an orphan, and then giving Horatio Sr.’s worst traits to a wicked squire. Finally, he provides the hero with a father by choice to love and understand him. The real message of the Alger books had a deeper appeal to pre-adolescent boys than the mere prospect of becoming a money baron. What is difficult to comprehend is how the author of the message, a timid bohemian, a failure by his father’s standards and double failure by his own, since he neither wrote a great book nor amassed even a modest fortune; should come to be regarded as the prophet of business enterprise. The other mystery is why the family melodrama that he wrote and rewrote for boys should be confused with the American dream of success.Even a writer like Mark twain missed the point:
Between the late 1860s and his death in 1899, Alger published more than 100 of these formulaic stories about poor boys who made good more often because of fortunate accidents than because of hard work and denial. Not all Americans, however, bought into this ideology of success. Mark Twain’s 1879 short story, “Poor Little Stephen Girard,” took satirical aim at the poor-boy-done-good theme that permeated dozens of Alger stories.
”…My uncle told me this story, and I spent six weeks in picking up pins in front of a bank. I expected the bank man would call me in and say: “Little boy, are you good?” and I was going to say “Yes;” and when he asked me what “St. John” stood for, I was going to say “Salt John.” But the bank man wasn’t anxious to have a partner, and I guess the daughter was a son, for one day says he to me: “Little boy, what’s that you’re picking up?” Says I, awful meekly, “Pins.” Says he: “Let’s see ‘em.” And he took ’em, and I took off my cap, all ready to go in the bank, and become a partner, and marry his daughter. But I didn’t get an invitation. He said: “Those pins belong to the bank, and if I catch you hanging around here any more I’ll set the dog on you!” Then I left, and the mean old fellow kept the pins. Such is life as I find it.”