The Horatio Alger Myth

horatio_smA few weeks ago I was looking through old books at a rummage sale.  A sign on the wall read: “vintage books 50 cents”.  There were stacks of books that my grandparents or great grandparents might have read in their youth.  In that pile I found Horatio Alger’s 1890 book, Five Hundred Dollars.  While the narrative was rather plodding, I was fascinated by the now exotic view of our country where a hearty meal cost 25 cents and transit is by horse and carriage.  If I had not been aware of the myth, I might have come to the conclusion that the name Horatio Alger is synonymous with stilted predictable writing.  The myth of Horatio Alger, is well stated by Wikipedia, which says he writes about “impoverished boys and their rise from humble backgrounds to lives of middle-class security and comfort through hard work, determination, courage, and honesty”.  This myth runs deep in the American psyche.  I remember hearing it from my parents and grandparents, so I was prompted to pick up the book to discover how the Horatio Alger myth was formed.  The book did not live up to my expectations of the Horatio Alger myth and in my eyes it failed as a work of literature, as well as a source of moral instruction.

The Horatio Alger myth has a certain beauty to it as we imagine an underdog fighting his way to success.  As I read this book, I found that the story deviated from my understanding of the myth.  While the author takes pains to endow the protagonist with traits of hard work, honesty, and good character, his achievements were made possible by intervention by others.  There is a rich uncle in the story who plays the role of fairy godmother to a poor Cinderella boy.  Contrary to my understanding of the Horatio Alger myth this protagonist’s rise was was due to connections.

I did not expect much from the book as a work of literature and in that respect I was not disappointed.  The characters are rather one dimensional, the plot is predictable, and the dialogue is stiff.  This is a book of moral instruction and the author goes out of his way to draw characters in black and white.

As I contemplated this book as a tool for moral instruction, I began to wonder what values were being advocated to my grandfather as his young impressionable mind was soaking up this adventure.  The theme of avarice vs. generosity eclipses everything else.  In pursuing this theme, the author takes pains to document every penny spent in this book.  In the end, virtue is rewarded, monetarily, but the process of achieving this result seems to strip life of any joy aside from that which money can provide.  For example, the protagonist’s brief stage of career is praised for it’s high wages and short hours.  I was disappointed in the accountant’s view of reckoning, where every moral choice seems based in monetary reward.

As I contemplate the faults of this book, I wonder if it has any bearing today.  I fear that Tea Party nostalgia longs for Horatio Alger.  If this book were to become a template for our society, I would expect that many rich uncles would fail to play their part as fairy godmother.   Even if they did perform scattered attempts at charity, what will become of those poor boys who are not such shining example of virtue?

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