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Horatio Alger and the Popularization of the Success Narrative

Only fools laugh at Horatio Alger, and his poor boys who make good. The wiser man who thinks twice about that sterling author will realize that Alger is to America what Homer was to the Greeks.

Nathanael West/Boris Ingster, “A Cool Million”

I felt that my foot was upon the ladder and that I was bound to climb. Andrew Carnegie

By the mid-19*11 century, the “ideology of mobility” was firmly entrenched in American society; it was the theme of “[e]ditorials, news stories, political speeches, commencement addresses, sermons, [and] popular fiction” (Thern- strom, Poverty 57-58). Representations of the self-made man in popular fiction are particularly prominent in this period in the oeuvre of Horatio Alger (18321899), who was not only a prolific writer but also worked as an editor, teacher, and pastor. The American Heritage Dictionary defines Horatio Alger as the author of popular fiction about “impoverished boys who through hard work and virtue achieve great wealth and respect” (43); often living with a single mother who depends on him for support, Alger’s typical protagonist usually has a chance encounter with a gentleman, who becomes his mentor as the young protagonist shows his moral integrity, works hard, and thus appears to be deserving of help. At the end of the story, he ends up comfortably ensconced in middle- class America and “is established in a secure white-collar position, either as a clerk with the promise of a junior partnership or as a junior member of a successful mercantile establishment” (Cawelti, Apostles 109). Alger’s novels pursue a thinly veiled didactic aim while they also cater to sensationalism, sentimentalism, and voyeurism. In the 19th century, the virtual “cult of the selfmade man” (Wyllie, Self-Made Man 13) was certainly propelled and reinforced by “Algerism,” as the popularity of the Horatio Alger stories came to be described, and even if his texts are hardly read anymore, Alger is still a household name today. Addressing a young, male audience, Alger’s 135 books, among them the well-known Ragged Dick series which comprises six novels (18681870), have sold more than 300.000.000 copies.

They “have structured national discourse as a narrative of personal initiative, enterprise, financial responsibility, thrift, equal opportunity, hard-work ethic, education and self-education, and other similar values of Puritan-Calvinist and liberal extraction” (Moraru, Rewriting 57) in seeming opposition to - yet ultimately in conjunction with - the so-called “bad boy-books” by Mark Twain and others that focused on a nostalgic “figurative escape into the pastoral, imaginative life of a premodern, anticapitalist world, while also embodying the enterprising and unsentimental agency of the capitalist himself” (Salazar, Bodies 75). In the 19th century, Alger’s books functioned as national allegories, since their adolescent protagonists’ rites of passage could be paralleled with the young republic’s struggle for independence (cf. Nackenoff, Fictional Republic 34, 38). Alger’s success as a writer diminished towards the end of his life, when his books became the object of criticism by an ‘anti-Alger movement’ which rallied to have his books removed from public libraries because they were deemed too trivial, “harmful,” and “bad,” and to cause a “softening [of] the brain” (ibid. 256; cf. Hendler, Public Sentiments 87-91). Alger’s stories became truly iconic in the first half of the 20th century, when the sales of his books, which were then used to identify the ‘American way of life’ in contrast to the ‘un-American’ notions of socialism and communism, rose sharply; ‘Cold War’ ideology thus enlisted Alger as “a patriotic defender of the social and political status quo and erstwhile advocate of laissez-faire capitalism” (Scharnhorst and Bales, Lost Life 152). It is during these decades that Algerism had its heyday. As Algerism came to signify “Americanism,” in many crucial ways “[t]he word of Alger excluded the word of Marx” (Hartz, Liberal Tradition 248).

Illustration 1: Rags to Riches

Cover of Sink or Swim by H. Alger (Boston: Loring, 1870).

Referring to the Horatio Alger stories as rags-to-riches narratives, however, may be an oversimplification, as John Cawelti has pointed out: First, because their protagonists never achieve success on their own but crucially rely on helper figures, a circumstance which somewhat mitigates the self-help impetus of Alger’s writings - Alger’s typical protagonist has “an astounding propensity for chance encounters with benevolent and useful friends, and his success is largely due to their patronage and assistance” (Cawelti, Apostles 109); this reliance on “magical outside assistance” (Trachtenberg, Incorporation 81) has led scholars to describe Alger’s famous hero Ragged Dick as a “male Cinderella-character in a postbellum America” (Moraru, Rewriting 56; cf. Nackenoff, Fictional Republic 275). Second, the protagonists of Alger’s tales never become spectacularly rich or successful - they rise from poverty to a comfortable middle-class status but never beyond that, and thus do not follow the get-rich-quick formula; in fact, we may consider the rather nostalgic hankering after a “return to the age of innocence” (Salmi, “Success” 601) that can be discerned in Alger’s texts as indicative of his critical attitude toward “the greed of the Gilded Age” (Cawelti, Apostles 120), the large-scale “incorporation of America” (cf. Trachtenberg’s book of the same title), and the new mythology of “corporate individualism” (Robertson, American Myth 176). Yet, there are a number of issues that Horatio Alger stories evade, and these evasions carry ideological weight: Alger’s virtuous and deserving heroes never experience bad luck and are never threatened by downward mobility - they never become homeless tramps or drifters, or inhabit any other seriously stigmatized and disadvantaged social space (cf. Nackenoff, Fictional Republic 76); as they also typically strive for white-collar employment, the factory and the “factory system” as a locus of labor is effaced altogether (ibid. 88), and their success in the corporate world seems to be based solely on personal virtue and ambition: “Serve your employer well, learn business as rapidly as possible, don’t fall into bad habits, and you’ll get on” (Alger qtd. in ibid. 91); yet, this corporate world is at times also cast in a negative light: “The popular image of the business world held unresolved tensions; on the one hand, it seemed the field of just rewards, on the other, a realm of questionable motives and unbridled appetites” (Trachtenberg, Incorporation 80-81); thus Alger’s stories point to a fundamental conflict in the American experience which is vicariously solved in these narratives even if they hardly ever address it directly. Alger’s stories moreover pay no attention to how class distinctions can be maintained more subtly through manners and habitus (cf. Veblen, Theory) and how the lack of a particular habitus can prevent upward mobility; instead, they offer “a potentially seductive message” produced by an “amalgamation of moral and cultural elitism with egalitarianism” (Nackenoff, Fictional Republic 179) that optimistically suggests the complete permeability of social boundaries and thus mostly negate class differences proper. Satirical reworkings of the Horatio Alger story, whose theme of social mobility is heavily imbued with social Darwinist thinking, can be found, for instance, in Nathanael West’s A Cool Million: The Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin (1934) and Robert Coover’s The Public Burning (1977), whose protagonist, a fictionalized version of Richard Nixon, is reminiscent of Alger’s Ragged Dick. Alger’s long-term influence can also be detected in many other texts, genres, and stock characters in popular fiction, but he did not invent the success story formula and self-help-ethic that he helped popularize; a few success stories of the Alger kind had been published prior to the Civil War, among them Paddy O’Flarrity’s A Spur to Youth; or, Davy Crockett Beaten (1834), Charles F. Barnard’s The Life of Collin Reynolds, the Orphan Boy and Young Merchant (1835), and J.H. Ingraham’s Jemmy Daily, or, The Little News

Vender (1843), and it is in the 1850s that newsboys and bootblacks become common figures in popular literature (cf. Cawelti, Apostles 107). Yet, it is Alger among all self-help propagandists who lastingly shaped the cultural imaginary of Americans by adding to Franklin’s advice register a new success formula with sentimental, affective appeal which celebrated “the pleasures of property” (Hendler, Public Sentiments 101) even more thoroughly.

Both Franklin’s and Alger’s formulas echo in many later representations of success in American culture, and have time and again been used as models for narrating success in the biographical and autobiographical vein. The self-made man as cultural script has been employed in order to describe individuals as different as Andrew Jackson (often referred to as the first self-made man in the White House), Abraham Lincoln, and Andrew Carnegie, who also used the formula in their own self-fashioning. Thus, for instance, Abraham Lincoln, who has often been viewed as the quintessential self-made man, “himself nurtured this tradition of humble origins to accentuate his own rise from obscurity to distinction” and fashioned himself as a ‘common man’ for political purposes, and many of his biographers have followed this lead (Winkle, “Abraham Lincoln”). Richard Hofstadter in this vein sees Lincoln as a “pre-eminent example of that self-help which Americans have always so admired” (“Abraham Lincoln” 92), and quotes from Lincoln’s Address to the 166th Ohio Regiment: “I happen, temporarily, to occupy this White House. I am living witness that any one of your children may look to come here as my father’s child had” (ibid.). Lincoln’s rhetoric to some extent shares in the “glorification of poverty in the success cult’s ideology” (Wyllie, Self-Made Man 24), yet “the most publicized actors during the late nineteenth century were not politicians but a dynamic breed of entrepreneurs, such as Astor, Gould, Vanderbilt, Carnegie, and Rockefeller” (Decker, Made in xxvii).

One of those entrepreneurs, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, published an article in 1889 titled “Wealth” (commonly referred to as “The Gospel of Wealth”), in which he programmatically (and somewhat hypocritically) reconnects wealth to social responsibility in a Franklinesque manner. In addition, Carnegie feels justified in advising the readers of his autobiography (published in 1920) about self-reliance and morality by repeatedly interspersing his account of how he spectacularly rose from poverty to become one of the world’s richest entrepreneurs with truisms such as “It is a great mistake not to seize the opportunity” (Autobiography 38) or “No kind action is ever lost” (ibid. 78), while failing to elaborate on certain less illustrious events in his life like his dubious role in the suppression of the 1892 Homestead Strike, which occurred at a steel works belonging to the Carnegie Steel Company. In order to evade and counteract the question of how extremely wealthy people like him, despite “having everything they wanted, [...] manage[d] to keep on wanting” (Michaels, “Corporate Fiction” 193), Carnegie turned to charity and welfare. His text is prefaced by his editor as follows:

Nothing stranger ever came out of the Arabian Nights than the story of this poor Scotch boy who came to America and step by step, through many trials and triumphs, became the great steel master, built up a colossal industry, amassed an enormous fortune, and then deliberately and systematically gave away the whole of it for the enlightenment and betterment of mankind. (Van Dyke, Editor’s Note 5)

‘Giving away’ one’s wealth, of course, retrospectively affirms once more that one had earned and owned it legitimately. Charity thus seeks to close the gap between self-interest and the common good by ‘returning’ to the general public what had previously been extracted from it through often exploitative practices. In similar fashion to Carnegie, the Rockefeller family is linked to both ruthless business practices and philanthropy (e.g. through the Rockefeller Foundation). Oil magnate John D. Rockefeller Sr.’s corrupt business practices (such as the large-scale blackmailing of competitors) have been minutely chronicled in the voluminous History of the Standard Oil Company (1905), whose author, journalist and historian Ida Tarbell, regretted that despite the exposure of his unlawful monopolization of the oil industry public opinion did not turn against him. Although the court proceedings against him did lead to Progressivist antitrust legislation, as by that time “tensions between the business community and the rest of American society seemed to preoccupy the minds of many” (Kam- men, People 266), Americans seem to admire Rockefeller as an impressive specimen of the self-made man even today.

Illustration 2: Self-Made Monopolist

C.J. Taylor, King of the World (n.d).

The myth of the self-made man - with a story based on trust in the incentives of the capitalist market, adherence to the Protestant work ethic, and luck - may be the prototypical modern American fairy tale. Decker points out how “stories of entrepreneurial success confer ‘moral luck’ - a secular version of divine grace - on their upwardly mobile protagonists” (Made in xxviii). Success stories thus can easily be considered American fairy tales with a providential twist, and as such they echo in and are invoked by many cultural productions from 19th-century popular fiction to 20th- and 21st-century Hollywood films. Their protagonist, the self-made man, personifies the American dream as wishful thinking and wish-fulfillment at the same time: “[T]he assumption that men were created equal, with an equal ability to make an effort and win an earthly reward, although denied every day by experience, is maintained every day by our folklore and dreams” (Mead, And Keep 68). As part dream, part fantasy, and part prophecy, the foundational myth of the self-made man seems to be powerful enough to defy the overwhelming evidence of its own baselessness.

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