Saturday, 28 February 2015

The recurring theme in Horatio Alger's stories

Chances are that you have never heard of Horatio Alger. In his time, that is, during the last two decades of the 19th century, he was one the best-selling writers in the United States of America. Alger was the author of dozens of novels aimed at young readers, telling for the most part rags-to-riches stories.

"Ragged Dick" was his most famous book. Its protagonist, a quintessential Alger character, tries out his hand at different professions until he finally achieves the life of prosperity that he pursues. "He went into business," wrote Alger in that novel, "starting in a small way, and worked his way up by degrees."

The spirit of his time

If you read Alger's novels nowadays, you might find their plot too simple. His characters were, to a certain extent, stereotypes. Did Alger's stories take place in exotic, exciting settings? No, that was mostly not the case. Was Alger an author known for his ability to write impressive dialogue? Hardly. His prose was fine, but not spectacular.

Literary critics who have studied Alger's work often conclude that his extraordinary popularity was based on the fact that "his stories responded well to the spirit of his time," a period of adventurous entrepreneurs and rapid economic progress.

This conclusion might be true, but in my view, it still leaves an important aspect out of the picture. If you read Horatio Alger's stories, you will find that they address important life issues. His novels revolved around fundamental values such as ambition, independence, and integrity.

Depicting a better future

The recurring theme in Alger's books is that you, the reader, have the same right to succeed as anybody else, irrespective of your origin, family, or personal history. If you don't give up and keep on pushing, you might just make it.

"Keep up a little longer and we will save you," wrote Horatio Alger in the final chapter of his best-selling book. "Dick heard the shout and it put fresh strength into him. He battled manfully with the treacherous sea, his eyes fixed longingly on the approaching boat. Hold on tight, little boy, there's a boat coming."

No wonder that those who read Alger's novels in the late 19th century liked them so much. At that time, when the world was still untouched by radio, films, and television, Alger's popular fiction was a bright sign pointing to a better future, telling each of his readers that he had been selected to make his dreams come true. Today, a century later, this message of hope is something that we don't get to hear often enough. 

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Image by Chuck Nhorus under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under

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