The Horatio Alger Story

When you hear the phrase “Horatio Alger story”—describing someone who succeeds with nothing but honesty, industry, and ambition—you may think it refers to a fictional hero. Instead it denotes the author of over a hundred such tales, called Horatio Alger, Jr., to distinguish him from his father.1 Alger (1832-1899) was once among the most popular writers in America; that is no longer the case, but his name lives on as shorthand for the attitudes and values conveyed by his books. Some readers turn it into an adjective—as in “the Algerian concept of the infinite possibility in this country for the enterprising” (Behrman v)—and some into nouns like “Algerism” or “Algerology” (Garrison 327, 329). Others use it to promote his philosophy. The Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans gives Horatio Alger Awards to public figures for “remarkable achievements accomplished through honesty, hard work, self-reliance and perseverance over adversity”; it also distributes millions of dollars in scholarships, encouraging students “to pursue their own version of the American Dream” (“About”). The Horatio Alger Society, another organization, aims “To further the philosophy of Horatio Alger, Jr. and to encourage the spirit of Strive and Succeed that for half of a century guided Alger’s undaunted heroes” (“Welcome”). As Richard Weiss observes, “This timid writer of children’s stories somehow became identified with the golden age of American plutocracy. A later generation used his name to symbolize the spectacular success that was possible” then (48-49).

Even those acquainted with Alger as the author of novels like Ragged Dick may not know that he grew up in Central Massachusetts. Alger has been associated with Marlborough since his family moved there in 1844, when he was twelve. The History of the Town of Marlborough—commissioned to mark the town’s 200th anniversary, in 1860, by a three-person committee which included Alger’s father (Hudson vi)—contains a “Marlborough Bicentennial Ode” that he wrote for the occasion (Hudson 508-509). Ella Bigelow, in Historical Reminiscences of the Early Times in Marlborough, identifies Alger as the town’s “author of juvenile literature”—although she bestows more praise on his sister, suffragist Olive Augusta Alger Cheney, for her “intellectual gifts and versatile pen” (30). The Marlborough Historical Society owns a collection of his novels, and the Marlborough Public Library keeps Alger materials in its archives. In 2006, however, the town decided to rename the annual Horatio Alger Street Fair after officials learned about the “historic allegations of pedophilia” once lodged against him (Maguire).2

Up by One’s Bootstraps: Working in Marlborough

The opening essays in this collection trace the region’s influence on Alger. As Gary Scharnhorst explains in “Horatio Alger, Jr., and Marlborough, Massachusetts,” Alger always considered that to be his hometown. Scharnhorst draws on Alger’s own descriptions of Marlborough to convey the impression it made upon him. At the time, according to local historian John Bigelow, it “was embarking on a career as an industrial town with shoes as the principal business—made in small, isolated shops which employed in each maybe ten people. As this business prospered, larger shops were erected” (qtd. in Weiss 50). Scharnhorst shows that many of Alger’s novels are set in similar small, pre-industrial New England towns.

One such town is “Lakeville,” where Bert Barton, the hero of Five Hundred Dollars, works in a shoe-shop. The novel’s first chapter, “A New Arrival in Lakeville,” appears below. It not only illustrates Alger’s habitual style, characterization, and plotting, but also suggests his view of Marlborough as a rural and manufacturing community. Indeed, the focus on Bert’s uncle—who comes back to Lakeville after making a fortune elsewhere—may express Alger’s thoughts of returning to his own hometown. In 1889, when Five Hundred Dollars appeared as a serial, he too was successful, but his family had left Marlborough over twenty years earlier.

Carol Nackenoff’s essay, “Keeping New England’s Factories off Limits: Horatio Alger’s Erasure of the Industrial Landscape,” examines Alger’s fictional treatment of the shoe-shops and other manufactories that flourished in Marlborough during his youth. She points out that the typical Alger hero seldom works in a factory—and when he does, plot incidents conspire to get him away from there as soon as possible. Nackenoff’s essay explores the reasons why Alger felt, as she puts it, that “the factory was not a good place to deposit heroes.”

Even so, Alger’s fiction often alludes to his hometown’s major industry, from shoe-shops to bootblacks to pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps. “Entrepreneur,” a contemporary poem about work in a Central Massachusetts shoe factory by Mary Fell, offers a sardonic take on the resourceful, practical spirit shown by Alger’s protagonists.

A Man’s Worth: Class and Gender in the Gilded Age

Like many novelists, Alger began as a poet, writing odes and occasional verse at Harvard, where he graduated in 1852. His first book was a collection of didactic stories and poems, Bertha’s Christmas Vision (1855); the second, a satirical poem entitled Nothing to Do: A Tilt at Our Best Society (1857). An excerpt from Nothing to Do shows that even at the beginning of his career, in a work in another genre, aimed at an adult audience, Alger was already concerned with the issues of poverty, social class, virtue, and manliness that dominate his juvenile fiction.

Alger’s satirical poem thus introduces themes explored by our next two contributors. Lisa Fluet’s essay, “The Unsocial ‘Purfessional’: Revisiting Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick,” focuses on the novel, first serialized in 1867, that established Alger’s reputation as a writer for children. Fluet shows how Dick’s success is linked to his philanthropic gestures toward other boys; meanwhile, he shifts to middle-class status by casting himself as “professional,” even if others resent him for separating himself from them. Drawing on analyses of social class by Paul Krugman and Bruce Robbins, Fluet compares Alger’s story to Prep, Curtis Sittenfeld’s recent novel about a scholarship student at a New England boarding school.

Carol J. Singley also examines how one of Alger’s protagonists moves between classes. In “Horatio Alger’s Tattered Tom: A Tale of Two Genders,” she considers the case of Tom, an orphaned street boy in Alger’s 1871 novel who is actually a girl named Jane. Singley argues that nineteenth-century stories about adoption were highly gendered: male orphans learn to make their own way, thanks to help from mentors, while girls settle into domesticity and are reunited with birth families. Singley shows how Alger shifts back and forth from the boy’s plot to the girl’s plot in Tattered Tom, in keeping with the apparent changes in Tom’s gender.

Hometown Heroes: Role Models and Readers

The next two essays consider Alger’s writing in the context of others’ lives in Central Massachusetts. John Anderson’s essay, “Models and Mirrors: Alger’s Worcester Contemporaries,” discusses Alger’s three biographies of self-made men, beginning with From Canal Boy to President, a life of James Garfield (1881). He establishes their basic plot, which parallels that of Alger’s novels: a poor boy succeeds against all odds, thanks to hard work, good character, and the assistance of a kindly older man. Anderson finds these elements in the lives of some of Alger’s local contemporaries, suggesting that Alger could have written similar biographies about figures like Matthew Whittall or David Hale Fanning.

Susan Elizabeth Sweeney’s essay concerns autobiography as well as biography. “Borrowing Privileges: Horatio Alger, S. N. Behrman, Milton Meltzer, and the Worcester Public Library” explains that Alger’s heroes often study books—including the lives of successful men—to improve themselves. S. N. Behrman and Milton Meltzer reveal in their memoirs that they were similarly inspired, as poor immigrant children in Worcester, by reading Alger. Poor children, however, depended on public libraries for books, and the Worcester Public Library banished Alger from its shelves in 1907. Eventually, Behrman and Meltzer became successful writers, too, and now the library owns works by all three authors.

Alger was already dead—of heart disease, in 1899—by the time that Behrman and Meltzer read his stories. Few children are familiar with Alger today; his books are more likely to be studied by scholars or hoarded by collectors. (The illustrations in this feature section, ranging from engraved frontispieces to covers of dime novels, indicate the various forms in which his work appeared over a fifty-year period.) The conditions that Alger described still exist, however, including children who are orphaned, homeless, poor, or otherwise needing to make their own way in the world. Two poems by Eve Rifkah—describing a child’s experiences in Massachusetts, several generations after Alger grew up there—provide a poignant comparison to his tales of luck and pluck. “Picnic” and “Escape” recount incidents in which “the kid” finds momentary respite from a hardscrabble life, first on a trip to the country and then at a public library. The perspective of Rifkah’s young protagonist helps to explain why the “Horatio Alger story”—with its themes of hope, charity, independence, and upward mobility—was once so popular among millions of American children.

Works Cited

“About the Horatio Alger Association.” Accessed 10 August 2009.

Alger, Horatio, Jr. Bertha’s Christmas Vision: An Autumn Sheaf. Boston: Brown, Bazin, and Company, 1856.

–—. Five Hundred Dollars; or, Jacob Marlowe’s Secret. 1890. Chicago: M. A. Donohue, n.d.

–—. From Canal Boy to President; or, The Boyhood and Manhood of James A. Garfield. 1881. Philadelphia: Archibald Press, 2009.

–—. “Marlborough Bicentennial Ode.” 1860. Hudson, History 508-509.

–—. Nothing to Do: A Tilt at Our Best Society. Boston: J. French, 1857.

–—. Ragged Dick; or, Street Life in New York with the Boot-Blacks. Boston: A. K. Loring, 1868.

–—. Tattered Tom; or, The Story of a Street Arab. 1871. Philadelphia: Henry T. Coates, n.d.

Behrman, S. N. “Two Algers.”Strive and Succeed: Julius; or, The Street Boy Out West and The Store Boy; or, The Fortunes of Ben Barclay. By Horatio Alger, Jr. New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1967. v-xii.

Bigelow, Ella A. Historical Reminiscences of the Early Times in Marlborough, Massachusetts, and Prominent Events from 1860 to 1910. Marlborough, MA: Times Publishing, 1910.

Garrison, Dee. “Cultural Custodians of the Gilded Age: The Public Librarian and Horatio Alger.” Journal of Library History 6 (1971): 327-36.

Hudson, Charles. History of the Town of Marlborough, Middlesex County, Massachusetts. From its First Settlement in 1657 to 1861. Boston: T. R. Marvin and Son, 1862.

Maguire, Ken. “Alger’s Past Leading Marlborough to Reconsider Name of Fair.” Boston Globe 22 Sept. 2006. Accessed 12 August 2009.

Scharnhorst, Gary, with Jack Bales. The Lost Life of Horatio Alger, Jr. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.

Weiss, Richard. The American Myth of Success: From Horatio Alger to Norman Vincent Peale. New York: Basic Books, 1969.

“Welcome to the Horatio Alger Society.” Accessed 10 August 2009.

  • 1I am grateful to librarians and staff at the American Antiquarian Society, the College of the Holy Cross, the Marlborough Historical Society, the Marlborough Public Library, the Syracuse University Library, and the Worcester Public Library for their help. Thanks, also, to the scholars and poets who contributed their work and to the production staff at The Worcester Review.
  • 2As Gary Scharnhorst and Jack Bales explain in their definitive biography, Alger was accused in 1866 of engaging in sexual acts with adolescent boys while serving in his first post as a Unitarian minister in Brewster, Massachusetts. The church agreed not to press matters further if Alger left the ministry altogether, which he did (1-3, 66-67). Alger, who had already begun writing for children, devoted himself to a career as an author of juvenile fiction and as a philanthropist who improved conditions for newsboys and other child laborers.