Old Smoke: Pluck and Luck

Written by William Bryk on . Posted in Opinion and Column, Posts.


In 1928, Herbert Asbury published Gangs of New York, his masterwork on 19th-century New York’s virile young ruffians, and Herbert R. Mayes published Alger: A Biography Without a Hero, the first biography of Horatio Alger Jr., author of countless moralizing books for boys whose works presented his own view of the same class at the same period. Asbury’s book was founded on the general knowledge and gossip he’d picked up as a New York reporter, from research among old newspapers and court records, and numerous interviews with those who had participated, or known participants, in the crimes and adventures that he recounted. Mayes claimed his book was based on exclusive facts derived from a diary that Alger had started at Harvard and maintained throughout his life. Vaguely inspired by the debunking biographies of Lytton Strachey, the book portrays Alger as a skirt-chasing sexual athlete.

To be sure, Malcolm Cowley, the critic, inquired about the diary, murmuring that Mayes’ facts were so exclusive that they could not be documented at all. But no one else questioned them. Once Mayes became editor of Good Housekeeping and a director of the Saturday Review, his biography became the truth: the basis for critical analysis of Alger and his works. Thus, The Dictionary of American Biography, Stuart Holbrook’s Lost Men of American History and John Tebbel’s 1963 biography, From Rags to Riches, all rely on Mayes. (Tebbel claimed that he had verified Mayes’ sources.)

We now know Tebbel was lying. Mayes admitted in the 1970s that his book is a work of fiction, largely invented by the author. The diary did not exist. There were no sources to verify. Nonetheless, in 1978, Mayes published a new edition for its golden anniversary, featuring a new self-debunking introduction. Mayes apparently reveled in committing and then safely revealing literary fraud. He also liked the income derived from a successful book. Alger would have understood. He, too, had written for money.

Alger’s name is welded to a particular image of the American dream: that anyone can rise from rags to riches through his own efforts. It is derived from the writings of Herbert Spencer, a 19th-century English agnostic philosopher who was once taken very seriously indeed. Spencer, who had come to believe in the evolution of animals by natural selection even before Charles Darwin published The Origin of the Species, thought this notion was equally applicable to the social sciences. Spencer’s American disciples, particularly William Graham Sumner, a sociologist, popularized his ideas into Social Darwinism.

The crude product of subtle minds, Social Darwinism applied natural selection–the survival of the fittest–to nearly every area of human life. Social Darwinists believed that even as the physical order was fixed by certain natural and implacable laws with which men ought not interfere, so was the social order. From his tenured professorship at Yale, Sumner preached that the rule of life was “root, hog, or die.” He opposed anything–the minimum wage, the eight-hour day, government regulation of economic activity, or even private charities such as soup kitchens for the homeless–that might interfere with social evolution. Slums, low wages and other indices of human misery were not to be reformed. Those living in squalor deserved no better: it was a symptom of their unfitness. Sumner lacked the common touch.

The image of the Horatio Alger novel far more effectively advocated this kind of rugged individualism. He published upward of 125 novels during his lifetime (about half a billion of his books have sold since the 1860s) and some 500 short stories. Another 280 serialized novels were never put in book form. One wonders how much of his output was actually read. Despite the collective reputation of Alger’s work as inspiring tales of hardworking, go-getting young entrepreneurs, far from preaching a virile gospel of success through struggle, his stories often seem like the passive romantic fantasies of a lonely mid-Victorian pederast.

Born on Friday the 13th in January 1832 in Revere, MA, Horatio Alger Jr. was the first son of a Unitarian minister. Having graduated Phi Beta Kappa with Harvard’s Class of 1852, he spent the first few years of his working life as a starving freelance journalist before returning to Harvard for his divinity degree. He graduated from divinity school in 1860.

Pleasant-faced, gray-eyed, balding and mustached, he was soft-spoken and shy. Twice rejected by the Union army for chronic chest trouble, Alger wrote novels instead. The New York Weekly serialized Marie Bertrand, a romance, in 1864. A year later, he published Frank’s Campaign. This was his first book for juveniles: a tale of how a boy ran the family farm while his father served in the Union army, outwitting the villainous squire who held the mortgage, and succeeding in all he undertook.

In November 1864, he had been called to the pulpit of the First Unitarian Church of Brewster, MA, in Cape Cod. Until March 1866, the Rev. Horatio Alger Jr. preached the Gospel (he was a superb public speaker), visited the sick and comforted the aged. He took a very special interest in the parish’s boys, taking them on walks in the woods, playing ball and organizing games, entertainments and festivals. This idyll ended on March 20, 1866, when, according to Edwin S. Hoyt’s Horatio’s Boys, a parish committee heard a report that Alger had buggered the son of an influential parishioner and at least one other boy. The parish minutes read, “We learn from John Clark and Thomas S. Crocker that Horatio Alger Jr. has been practicing on them at different times deeds that are too revolting to relate.” Alger failed to deny the charges, saying that he had been “imprudent” and that he considered his connection with the parish severed. He caught the next train out of town that afternoon. The former minister was neither arrested nor indicted and the charges were quickly forgotten. No one would uncover the facts of his departure from Brewster for a century.

Alger traveled directly to the battery with a carpetbag of manuscripts and a desire to dedicate his life to writing and to boys–an interest he had announced to an acquaintance, William Taylor Adams, who wrote books for juveniles under the pen name Oliver Optic. Adams, who also edited Student and Schoolmate, characterized by Stuart Holbrook as “a goody-goody periodical for boys,” seems to have taken this statement at face value. Soon after his arrival, Alger promised Adams a new serial novel for Student and Schoolmate, set among the homeless waifs, bootblacks and newsboys of New York, in whom Alger took a keen interest. Within a few days, he delivered three chapters to Adams.

This was Alger’s first success, the incomparable Ragged Dick, the story of a youth attempting to survive on the streets of New York City. Student and Schoolmate flew off the stands. At the end of the following year, when A.K. Loring published the serial as a book, it became a runaway nationwide bestseller. Alger endlessly reused this story over the next 32 years, usually changing only the titles, the names of the characters and sometimes the setting. Contrary to popular belief, the protagonists of these books are not so much adventurous youths rising to riches as male Cinderellas, sycophants pleasing their employers to gain lives of modest comfort. As Michael Moon notes in his essay, “The Gentle Boy from the Dangerous Classes,” mere luck, rather than an increased understanding of the world, sets the Alger hero on his way. Alger’s protagonists are attractive adolescents–”well-formed and strong” or “well-knit,” with “bright and attractive faces”–who, through chance encounters, usually some spontaneous display of strength and daring, are befriended by older, wealthier men. Often, the relationship seems based upon a quick physical assessment. The lads become proteges and flourish under their mentors’ genteel patronage. Intriguingly, Alger heroes only rarely make their fortunes by marrying the boss’ daughter.

Within five years of his arrival in New York, Alger had published seven serial novels in Student and Schoolmate alone. He usually wrote several books almost simultaneously. He would churn out a few pages of one before boredom set in; then he would turn to another, and another and then return to the first. He worked 15 hours at a stretch, often living on coffee to stay awake as the prose gushed from his pen. He wrote quickly: Frank and Fearless, 80,000 words long, took two weeks. On finishing, according to Holbrook, he took a walk around the block and started in on Upward and Onward, polishing that off in another 13 days. His life became his books: Fame and Fortune, Rough and Ready, Rufus and Rose, Strive and Succeed, Tattered Tom, Paul the Peddler, Phil the Fiddler, Slow and Sure, Try and Trust, Bound to Rise, The Young Acrobat, Sam’s Chance; Risen from the Ranks and dozens more.

Of course, none of these books are any good. His writing is cliched and pompous. Heroes invariably assume manly stances and villains charge like bulls–to no avail. Characters are interchangeable: there is no difference between Tom Temple or Tom Thatcher or Walter Sherwood. Though later novels are set in the Wild West, San Francisco, Australia or England, the stories never change. His Native Americans and Asians are stereotypes. His African Americans betray Alger’s view of Negroes as subhuman.

Moreover, he was amazingly sloppy. He forgot whether his current hero was Andy Gordon or Andy Grant or Bob Burton or Herbert Carter, and sometimes a single hero might bear five or six different names in the manuscript. With age, he became even more intellectually flaccid: Brave and Bold, a novel of a factory boy, fails to show its hero doing a day’s work in a factory or the kind of factory in which he was employed.

Yet these incredibly bad books were incredibly good magazine serials, as Edwin Hoyt noted: each episode rises to a climax, leaving ’em panting for more. He slowed only slightly with age, still producing three books or more a year until his health began failing during the winter of 1898. He had planned to visit his sister in New England, when an attack of asthma overcame him. He died on July 18, 1899.

New Alger books kept appearing. His publishers hired Edward Stratemeyer, the future creator of Tom Swift, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, to squeeze more of them from the plot outlines and incomplete serials left in Alger’s bottom drawer. Alger remained a bestseller until World War I, when changing tastes in children’s books superceded him.

As literature, Alger’s work is trash. As propaganda, its effect was stupendous. The influence of his books and, more importantly, the code they were believed to preach, may have affected more Americans in his day than did that of any other contemporary writer. Not bad for a child molester.

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