by Kent Oswald

It’s not a lie to call something a “Horatio Alger ‘Rags to Riches’ story,” but it is also almost never accurate.

None of the words jumbled into his novels, biographies, magazine serials, poems, and essays describe someone rising from abject poverty to fabulous wealth by virtue of his (never her) own “luck and pluck” (to borrow from a title from one of his more popular novels). The fiction of his fiction is a layer of bedrock in American exceptionalism; his own biography is an arc from a place where he didn’t want to be to one where he did. It all makes for a saga adorned with mercantile aspirations, and tinged with editorial contortions, marketing manipulations and bits of personal scandal.

Alger, an often sickly child with an early love of reading and writing, was born in 1832 in what is now Revere, Massachusetts. He descended from Plymouth Colony settlers as the son of a Unitarian minister whose bankruptcy forced a resignation from his church pulpit in 1844. Alger himself lived by turns as a minister, schoolteacher, Civil War balladeer, noted crusader for children’s charities, tutor to the children of the well-to-do and, most happily for him, author.

He began publishing stories and poems as a Harvard College student, before graduating in 1852. Four years later, he published a short story collection taking its title from Bertha’s Christmas Vision, an 1853 parable he penned for a Unitarian church magazine. It featured a little girl who, awaiting St. Nicholas, dreams a visit from three sister angels spouting poetic wisdom greater than the gifts filling her stocking on Christmas Day. He kept writing and publishing, even as his career turn was to follow his father into the ministry, graduating Harvard Divinity School in 1860.

Alger’s first novel, Frank’s Campaign, was published in 1864 and written in the period following his rejection by the Union Army for failing to meet minimum height and eyesight requirements. It tells of a boy taking over his father’s farm when the elder is called away to fight. The earnestness and interest in children that fueled his later acclaim are apparent, but the plotting and characterization remain un-alchemized.

According to the foremost Alger scholar, Gary Scharnhorst, that literary alchemization occurred in 1866, when Church leaders charged Alger with “a most heinous crime, a crime of no less magnitude than the abominable and revolting crime of unnatural familiarity with boys…” Alger never publicly admitted to anything more than being “imprudent,” but after being ousted from his pulpit, he agreed in writing never to again claim the title “reverend.”

In an attempt to hush the scandal, detrimental both to the church and his respected father, he moved to New York City, transforming himself into a professional man of letters. From 1867 to 1868 in a format evolving from serialization to novel, he sent out to the world Ragged Dick, the story of a dissolute young teen yearning for and attaining middle class respectability, not of his own volition, rather through the financial help and moral instruction of an older gentleman.

The introduction of the steam printing press provided technology to produce books more cheaply. At the same time the rise of an urbanized middle class and school laws yielded a newly literate young adult audience interested in stories of boys. Over and over again they read Alger’s premise—the plot structures vary little—that boys who act virtuously attract a wealthy benefactor, and scramble to middle class respectability.

The books are populated with one-dimensional characters, and episodic plots interrupted by didactic asides on the virtues of self-improvement, Christian ethics, hard work, financial thrift, education, courtesy, humanity’s inherent goodness, and personal hygiene. Alger’s works were popular and held their place in the public’s imagination alongside the prose of other mass entertainers such as Elijah Kelly, author of Spartacus to the Gladiators, and William Taylor Adams, who wrote as Oliver Optic.

Interest in Alger’s work had waned by the time of his death in 1899, three years after a nervous breakdown.

Although later works failed to achieve the acclaim of Ragged Dick, Alger made a respectable living as a popular writer. He didn’t outline, but selected an incident from his sources (the “street arabs” living off New York City streets as bootblacks, newsboys and the like, who it is uncomfortable to consider served a pederast as muses) and began to write. Sales ebbed as the years went on, inspiring a sad literary cycle. With returns worsening, he hurriedly produced the next book—impacting quality and therefore sales—sending the literary hamster wheel around again until he had produced 100 or more such works. In the mid-1870s he went west looking to trade city boy stories for those of the country, hoping to get in on the contemporary myth-making of the American frontier.

Interest in Alger’s work had waned by the time of his death in 1899, three years after a nervous breakdown. In the early 20th century, publishers, without regard to any sort of copyright regulation as we know it, re-edited and repackaged Alger’s work to align with a thematic celebration of financial success and power.

As fortunate in timing as his original works had been, these new editions were tweaked to invoke the spirit (or with a likeness on the cover) of financial entrepreneurs like John Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie—even the can-do-it-ness of Theodore Roosevelt. To meet demand, Edward Stratemeyer, the genius who wrote and hired others in his “syndicate” to create the serial publications of Tom Swift, Nancy Drew, the Hardy boys, even whipped up new tales and branded them with Alger authorship. With the reissue of his works, Alger’s reputation as creator of characters who rise from abject circumstances to achieve great commercial success congealed.

Alger’s biographer Herbert Mayes, author of 1928’s “definitive” Alger: A Biography without a Hero, admitted after his retirement in the 1970s that he had fabricated his romantic, melodramatic stew of the author’s life, in the wake of so few sources—Alger’s sister Augusta having burned his letters and diaries in accordance with his wishes. Mayes confessed to being “baffled” at the positive reviews and success of a book he was, by then, characterizing as “parody.” Even as a more factual paper trail has been established, and Alger’s often near-turgid prose is widely available via the Internet, nothing seems to shake the place Alger holds as a cultural reference.

Once again this past April, and without irony, the Horatio Alger Association inducted a select group as they have each year since 1947. This group of almost exclusively conservative businessmen and politicians are honored in the interest of promoting education, and their demonstration of the ideals of the “rags to riches” dream. Once again, the group takes no notice of the biography or writings of the man in whose name they receive acclaim, celebrating the more pleasing mythological Alger rather than deal with the more controversial actual.

While the cliché to which his name has evolved may not be well founded, it is probably too cruel to criticize Alger for not living up to how he is remembered. He more than achieved his own dream, escaping a life chosen for him by his father to become not just a successful writer, but one who more than a century after his death still remains a part of mainstream commentary.

Maybe the Horatio Alger story—the real one, not the mythic—really does embody that rags to riches dream for which he receives so much credit.

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Kent Oswald’s work has appeared in LA Times Book Reviews, Tennis Industry, Cigar Aficionado, Six Sentences, and elsewhere. He tweets @Ready4Amy and @CupidAlleyChoco.