I’m sure for you generation X, Y and Zers, the name Horatio Alger, a strange one to your ears no doubt, doesn’t ring any bells. That’s unfortunate, because his message to young people is sorely needed today. Alger was a prolific author of dime-store novels, as they were called, in the mid to late 19th Century; his name became synonymous with up by the bootstraps overcoming the odds success.
As a fanatical reader I’ve long harassed my children about the importance of reading, and some years ago decided that every Christmas I would buy them two books each (that would be six total—you do the math). Since I’m big on self-reliance and embracing the challenges life throws your way I figured Horatio Alger would be a good read for our youngest, 10 year old Dominic. I decided to secure Alger’s first novel “Ragged Dick” (and yes, there were some chuckles when the gift was opened by those in the family not 10 years old) and I am very glad I did.
Since I had never read an Horatio Alger novel, I beat my son to the book and the day after Christmas had it finished. My first impression was how different American culture was 145 years ago. It seems obvious but it is still a shock to the system. This was well before progressives decided that life without the welfare state wasn’t much worth living. Somehow Ragged Dick and every other American survived, and many prospered. Sure letting seven year old orphans roam the streets of New York City probably is not something we want in 2012, but what such things reveal about human nature is fascinating.
Alger clearly did not know of or believe in victimization, I dare say a healthy state of mind. My children often get the lecture, you can either feel sorry for yourself, or work harder; you can either wallow in self-pity, our natural state in a fallen world, or determine you will figure a way out. Young Richard Hunter at age 14 in the book and from age seven when he was orphaned didn’t realize he had the option to see himself as a victim. He had no choice but to survive and if he could prosper.
This didn’t mean that Dick didn’t get some breaks, but he took advantage of the breaks he got. As one of Alger’s book titles says, to get ahead requires both “Luck and Pluck.” Ragged Dick did have some good fortune in people who were willing to help him, but it was his attitude and basic moral sensibility that allowed him to take advantage of the breaks he got. We see this in a conversation Dick has with a newfound benefactor:
“You’re a good fellow,” said Dick, gratefully. “I’m afraid I’m a pretty rough customer, but I aint as bad as some. I mean to turn over a new leaf, and try to grow up ‘spectable.”
“There’ve been a great many boys begin as low down as you, Dick, that have grown up respectable and honored. But they had to work pretty hard for it.”
“I’m willin’ to work hard,” said Dick.
“And you must not only work hard, but work in the right way.”
“What’s the right way?”
You began in the right way when you determined never to steal, or do anything mean or dishonorable, however strongly tempted to do so. That will make people have confidence in you when they come to know you. But, in order to succeed well, you must manage to get as good an education as you can. Until you do, you cannot get a position in an office or counting-room, even to run errands.”
“That’s so,” said Dick, soberly. “I never thought how awful ignorant I was till now.”
“That can be remedied with perseverance,” said Frank. “A year will do a great deal for you.”
“I’ll go to work and see what I can do,” said Dick, energetically.
Great literature it’s not, but the message to young people through this and all Alger’s books is that success is tied to individual effort, attitude, action and a solid moral foundation built on religion. Other boys had opportunities to get the same breaks as our hero, as he’s referred to often in the book, but they were either lazy or unwilling to change.
This message could not be timelier for the 21st Century, and not just for my three children. Success and getting ahead in life, being ‘spectable, is a decision each person has to make for themselves. The current cultural and political milieu communicates in a myriad of ways that people are cogs in an impersonal capitalist wheel over which they have little control, and that we need government to protect us from these hostile forces. But in the world of Horatio Alger hostile forces are part of the deal, something to be overcome, not excuses for failure. We can all learn something from our hero’s attitude:
[Dick’s] street education had sharpened his faculties, and taught him to rely upon himself. He knew that it would take a long time to reach the goal which he had set before him, and he had patience to keep on trying. He knew that he had only himself to depend upon, and he determined to make the most of himself—a resolution which is the secret of success in nine cases out of ten.
As we know this perspective is not one embraced by the majority of our fellow citizens; we saw that “tax the rich” class warfare and envy won the day in our recent presidential election. To our cultural elites self-reliance is a dangerous concept; “it takes a village” is their default position for getting ahead in life. Dependence if not a good thing, is at least understandable. Being “on the dole” is no longer stigmatized.
But villages don’t raise self-reliant success oriented independent adults. Fathers and mothers do, especially fathers, which are increasingly in short supply in modern America. Ragged Dick and other boys in Alger books had successful men that provided direction and opportunity to them. To succeed in life, children need a father and a mother, preferably married, both male and female examples, masculine and feminine traits exhibited, and above all an attitude portrayed in that family that we are not victims, that feeling sorry for ourselves is not an option, that life’s challenges are there not to deter or destroy us, but to help us become our better selves. We need more stories like this told in America. Will the next Horatio Alger for the 21st Century please stand up!