New York in History and Anecdote
Random header image... Refresh for more!

Pluck and Luck

In 1928 Herbert Asbury published The Gangs of New York, his masterwork on nineteenth-century New York’s virile young ruffians. That same year Herbert R. Mayes published Alger: A Biography Without a Hero, the first biography of Horatio Alger Jr., whose works—countless moralizing books for boys—presented his 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, 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.

The critic Malcolm Cowley 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 accepted truth: the basis for all future critical discussion and analysis of Alger and his works. The Dictionary of American Biography, Stewart Holbrook’s Lost Men of American History, and John Tebbel’s 1963 biography, From Rages to Riches, all rely on Mayes.

Tebbel even claimed he had verified Mayes’ sources. He was being less than truthful. Mayes admitted in the 1970s that his book is a work of fiction, largely invented by the author. There were no sources to verify. The diary did not exist.  Nonetheless, in 1978, on the occasion of the book’s golden anniversary, Mayes published a new edition, featuring a new self-debunking introduction. Mayes delighted in committing and then safely revealing literary fraud. Evidently, he also liked the income derived from a successful book.

Alger, who had himself written for money, would have understood.

Alger’s name is wedded to a particular image of the American dream: that anyone can rise from rages 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, before Charles Darwin published The Origin of the Species, had come to believe in the evolution of animals by natural selection, believed this notion equally applicable to the social sciences. Spencer’s American disciples, particularly the sociologist William Graham Sumner, popularized his ideas as Social Darwinism.

The crude product of subtle minds, Social Darwinism applied natural selection—the notion of “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 to interfere, so was the social order.

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, even private charities such as soup kitchens for the homeless—that might interfere with his notion of 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, but then, as a tenured Yale professor, he didn’t need it.

The image of the Horatio Alger novel far more effectively advocated this kind of rugged individualism. He published upwards 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 into 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, his stories are often far from preaching a virile gospel of success through struggle. Rather, they often seem like the passive romantic fantasies of a lonely mid-Victorian pederast.

Born on Friday the 13th in January 1832 in Revere, Massachusetts, 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, which he received in 1860.

Pleasant-faced, gray-eyed, balding, and mustachioed, Alger 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 succeeded in all he undertook.

In November 1864, he was called to the pulpit of the First Unitarian Church of Brewster, on 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 boys of the parish, 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 in 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 did not deny the charges, saying that he had been “imprudent” and that he considered his connection with the parish severed. That afternoon, he caught the next train out of town. 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 New York 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, which Stuart Holbrook characterized 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, 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 thirty-two 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 involving 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 protégés and flourish under their mentors’ genteel patronage. Intriguingly, Alger heroes only rarely make their fortunes by marrying the boss’s 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 simultaneously. He would churn out a few pages of one before boredom set in; then he would turn to another and then another before returning to the first. He worked fifteen 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 returned to start Upward and Onward, polishing that off in thirteen 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 is any good. His writing is clichéd 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 and Tom Thatcher or between Tom Thatcher and 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 Negroes subhuman.

Moreover, his work 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 a manuscript. With age, he became intellectually flaccid: Brave and Bold, though a novel of a factory boy, fails to show its hero doing a day’s work in a factory or even to identify the factory’s product.

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

But death had no dominion over his product. His publishers hired Edward Stratemeyer, the future creator of Tom Swift, the Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew, to squeeze new Alger novels from the plot outlines and incomplete serials left in the dead man’s bottom drawer. Alger remained a bestseller until World War I, when changing tastes in children’s books marginalized 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 those of any other contemporary writer. Not bad for a child molester.

New York Press, February 5, 2003

February 9, 2009   Comments Off on Pluck and Luck