11 May 2014

Literary Rags

by Leigh Lundin

Last week, I joined the ranks of my betters appearing in Ellery Queen’s Something is Going to Happen blog with a little literary history cloaked in a Hardy Boys story. It was fun to write, but that little piece about the most famous mystery author you never heard of, “The Mystery of the Writer’s Ghost,” took a surprising amount of research and included supporting work by Dale Andrews and Rob Lopresti.

I’ll leave it to you to discover how that article unexpectedly ties into this one, but the research of the above led me to focus on a prolific and hugely popular American author I’d read about, but never before read. And to my surprise, reading his works wasn’t work at all. The books are delightful, they are fun and entertaining, not what you might presuppose considering their influence on society.

Exemplars and Archetypes

What other author has the cachet of a man whose writings not only parallels that of Industrial Age America, but so captures the American Dream, he is used as an iconic metaphor?
Horatio Alger, Jr
Horatio Alger, Jr.

Occasionally, we hear comparisons with literary figures and when we do, they’re seldom flattering: an Ebenezer Scrooge, a Mrs. Havisham, a Simon Legree, a Stepford wife. When it comes to authors, I’m hard pressed to come up with any names… except one.

A Horatio Alger story

Horatio Alger, Jr. is the full name, one of many facts I confess I didn’t know. I’ll pretend my ignorance of the man isn’t abysmal although you’ll see I’m taking steps to correct that.

And why didn’t I know? I grew up often hearing the phrase, “His is a regular Horatio Alger story, knowing what was meant, but without knowing who was referred to. We didn’t study the stories in school, they weren’t on our reading list, and I don’t recall seeing even one Alger novel in my family’s children’s library or my father’s extensive book collection. That’s no excuse, perhaps.

Ragged Dick

This week I read the first Horatio Alger story, Ragged Dick, serialized in Student and Schoolmate shortly after the end of the American Civil War in 1867. It’s set in a burgeoning pre-modern New York City: Central Park is partly developed, the grandest marble and limestone buildings stand only a few stories tall, street commerce is conducted in shillings and the Brooklyn Ferry costs 2¢.

What I didn’t expect was such a fast, easy read, a fun and funny romp through the streets of New York. The story’s written on multiple levels and it takes a bit of education to get some of the humor. Arguably, Alger’s stories and characters parallel those of Charles Dickens, although contemporary audiences will find Alger more approachable, less literary, and a hell of a lot funnier. (From a writer’s standpoint, I note that Dickens was paid by the word and accordingly padded out his works. In contrast, Alger wrote sparingly and his stories move considerably faster.)

A century and a half ago, the vocabulary of an educated American was 40% larger than it is now. Glance at schoolbooks of the era; the readers were considerably more advanced than those of today, an issue Common Core takes a stab at establishing in a national standard, weak-kneed as it is. Back in the day, advanced curricula included logic, rhetoric, debate, Latin and sometimes Greek. The nineteenth century was a time when schoolwork meant work. An educated child of yesteryear might well outstrip an adult of today in given topics.

The Streets of New York

Ragged Dick is a playful and slyly humorous story with much of the drollery coming from the titular character. For SleuthSayers fans, there is crime: hustles, scams, and thievery. Our little hero is street-wise but he refuses to steal, although there’s one scene where he out-cons a con-man.

With the success of this novel, Alger must have thought he’d stumbled upon a winning formula. In more than a hundred novels aimed at working class youth (but operating on other levels, as above), he repeated the same plot with the same stock characters.

His books have often been called ‘rags to riches’, but ‘rags to respectability’ is far more accurate, earning a way into the middle class structure of this Land of Opportunity through hard work and honesty. It’s hardly surprising his books fell out of favor and out of print during the depths of the Great Depression. Then as now, when the free market stumbled thanks to greed and fraud, Marxism started to look more attractive. But the economic wheel cycled and Alger’s philosophy received new interest and respect during America’s rebuilding in the 1950s.
Read it and Reap

I may have begun the book fearing a century-and-a-half-old work might be a bit of drudgery, but to my surprise, I enjoyed the novel despite flaws. Like most children’s books prior to the 1950s, it’s morally instructive but not onerously so. Most readers can take pleasure in the novel’s cleverness and humor.

If I had to come up with a tag line for this witty story, I’d hazard this:
If you enjoyed Spanky and Our Gang’s Little Rascals, you’ll love Ragged Dick.
Oh, and you can find the novels free at several places on the web, and don’t forget to check out the Ellery Queen blog that prompted all this.


  1. Leigh, thanks for some info I didn't know. I have several comments. First, I read the grittiest crime books available, but I still enjoy good children's literature (not literature for only good children, but good literature.) See the difference? I didn't when I accidentally put on Facebook yesterday that I will be reading Raoul Dahl's BFG in Greenville next Saturday, then added that Steven Spielberg is making a movie of it. A misplaced modifying phrase made it sound like Spielberg is filming me reading.
    Second, the curriculum in American schools is not bad everywhere. Aeden is fourteen and in the eighth grade. His subjects this year included Latin, logic, and debate as well as algebra. No, he's not in a private school. He attends the public school in Lexington, SC.
    While I'm bragging, he scored high enough on the PSAT to be a State Junior Scholar.
    Enough bragging. I enjoyed your blog.
    One more thing: Happy Mother's Day to everyone (including those single dads who are raising children alone and have to serve as mother and father).

  2. Good points, Fran, and I'm glad Aeden is not only exposed to classical studies, but excelling!

    And thank you for mentioning mother's day… without mothers, we'd have nothing!

  3. I'm in--just downloaded Ragged Dick. My mother, who came to New York as a four-year-old immigrant in 1906 and became a lawyer, a writer and editor, and later, got a doctorate and became a college professor (in her 70s) was raised on Horatio Alger and took it very seriously. The idea of the American Dream was very real to her generation. And there's my Mother's Day tribute!

  4. To Liz: Thanks for sharing your personal example of the realization of the American Dream. Too many people don't believe in it anymore.

  5. Thanks, Elizabeth. I'm a believer in The Dream, too. Like anything fragile, it can be shattered by greed, corruption, and rewarding Wall Street and banking fraud. Nothing like a few ruining the Dreams for many.

    Because you're a longtime resident, I'd like to hear your take on the tour of NYC.

  6. Although I never read any novels or stories featuring Horatio Alger, from hearing the name and reading it, I always thought he was a fictional character. It was only when I was in college that I discovered he was an author, but I still didn’t read any of his books. Encouraged by your post, I plan to download one or two of the books from the manybooks.net website. Since you’ve read some of the books, which would be a good introductory novel for a new reader?

  7. One thing about Horatio Alger is that, while he's always touted as "rags to riches", the boys don't get there by hard work, but by helping an old wealthy man who gives the boy a reward, sometimes a job, and often takes the boy home as his ward. In other words, luck still counts. And the rich still have to help the poor...

  8. A Broad Abroad11 May, 2014 12:53

    Interesting column. (Congratulations on the EQ article.) Like Louis, I’d welcome your suggestion for a first-time H.A Jnr. read.

    As for the American Dream: I’ve been fortunate to travel (and, in some instances, live and work) all over the world, and still, after umpteen visits to the US, it is one country that really does feel like the Land of Opportunity.

    Happy Mother’s Day to all - birth, adopted, surrogate or otherwise - our grateful thanks.

  9. I LOVE RAGGED DICK. Sorry for shouting but my father gave me this to read when I was a kid and I remember enjoying it and wishing I could hang out with Dick et al. Afterwards, I never associated it with Horatio Alger. Thanks for this. I'll have to see if the grandkids would like to meet Dick. Your EQMM Something is Going to Happen column was excellent.

  10. Terry, I'm so glad! I bet if Grandmother got the g'kids started on the right track, they'd love it too. The humor is infectious.

    Louis, you were a step ahead of me figuring out Alger was the author and not a character, but in fact, that believe is so ubiquitous in the public's mind, it's called the Alger Myth.

    I'd recommend starting with Ragged Dick. It's the first, it's funny, and other books spin off from it.

    Eve, that's largely true, although hard work, humor, and bravery often bring them to the attention of those who can lend a helping hand. Dick's initially helped by a boy how gives him an extra suit. He builds from there. I don't want to get too close to politics, but I watched one of these TV screaming-financial-advisor shows where some Wall Street hotshot who'd benefited from the bailout criticize Warren Buffet for trying to ruin things for the rest of them.

    ABA, thank you and as always I'm humbled. I recommend Ragged Dick to start. I found an audio version on-line for those with tired eyes, but I'm afraid I didn't make a note of the link.

  11. A Broad Abroad11 May, 2014 17:14

    Ragged Dick it is – thank you for the suggestion.
    Here’s a link to an audio version: Ragged Dick

  12. Yesterday, I experienced a humbling moment. On the sidewalk in a semi-run-down section, a derelict approached me and asked if I could spare change. As I dug into my pocket, I noticed a woman wheeling a shopping cart stop and watch the transaction– not having used the word ‘slattern’ before, it doesn't sound appropriate, even if it’s within the bounds of the OED.

    Mentally I sighed and cut back the coins to give the man, expecting her to ask for change next. Then this woman who looked unkempt and no better dressed than the man stepped up and gave him a dollar.

    I wanted to hug her. In awe, I said, “You’re a wonderful lady.” This woman exemplified the story of the Window’s mite, perhaps my favorite New Testament story. She’d given more than a 1%er. What a great lady and a learning moment for me.

    Since it’s Mother’s Day, I might add that when approached by panhandlers, my diminutive 5’ tall mother would stop and ask them if they planned to buy booze. Rather than dole out change, I’ve seen her march derelicts into sandwich shops and purchase food and coffee for them, as if daring customers and staff to say a word. That activist one-on-one charity set an example I can only try to live up to.

    It really is Mother’s Day.

  13. Thank you, Leigh, for the Horatio Alger writeup! We are in the new Gilded Age (a term created by Mark Twain). Don't let it get you down. It's important to maintain our believe in the "rags to riches" story and the American dream.

    Barry Schoenborn, Immediate Past President, Horatio Alger Society

  14. Thanks, Barry, I'm honored. Alger has lessons for everyone, rich and poor.

    And I agree. I can't imagine not having the American Dream.

  15. A postscript to all this is I think Horatio Alger died flat broke!

  16. Carolyn Jenkins13 May, 2014 19:02

    Be humble again, Leigh. My grandmother invited hobos in for food, shower and a place to sleep if they would help out around the house. Paint a fence, fix the loose boards in the porch. The hobos left an etched triangle in her gate post which was a sign to other wandering hobos of her hospitality. This was back in the Great Depression. My granddad found work as a mechanic in Atlanta which was 4-5 hour drive from home. They lived in Monroe, NC and the hobos jumped off there from the trains on the Peachland line. If you think I should write about my grandmom, I have, in an old blog which is still out there in cyberspace. An escaped felon also stayed there and repaired her roof. She didn't know about it until he left and was recaptured. (Been afraid to join in here...I'm not as creative or successful as a writer...not yet...working on it.)

  17. I did not know that, Jeff! Good catch.

    Carolyn, you most certainly are welcome. And I know better than some how hard you work.

    I think your stories of the hobos are interesting… especially the escaped felon. I had heard of hobo markings before, but your grandmother's the first person I know who had witnessed it and you're the first to describe a triangle. I wonder if the ∆ represented a tent, i.e, shelter?


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>