Horatio Alger, Jr. had an unfortunate childhood. Not because he lived in ragged poverty like the heroes of the novels he would come to write, but because he was reared under the thumb of a tyrannical father, a religious zealot and Unitarian minister. I know the words religious zealot and Unitarian are not often found in the same sentence these days but, trust me, it was possible in the days when the new sect was breaking away from Congregational Puritanism. Not all of the Puritanism got left behind.
Alger was born on January 13, 1832 in Chelsea, Massachusetts. As the oldest child, he was intended from birth to follow his father’s footsteps in the ministry. The diminutive boy, like his siblings was frail, suffering from asthma and severe near sightedness. Whether because of his weakness or because of his stern father’s deep seeded Puritanism, the boy was forbidden to play like other children or engage in any amusement. He was expected to spend all of his time on study or prayer.
He was, however, an apt pupil, pitifully eager to please and unappeasable father. He showed an early gift for writing, composing poems and stories for his brothers and sisters. In 1844 his father was called to a new—and much better paying—pulpit at the Second Congregational Society of Marlborough, unfashionably far west of Boston. The boy was enrolled in a local grammar school, from which he graduated at 15. By then local newspapers were printing his sentimental poems and uplifting short stories.
Young Alger was destined for Harvard, then in the tight grip of Unitarians of the most conservative sort. He easily passed his examinations and entered the college in 1848. Among his teachers on the 14 member Harvard faculty were Louis Aziz and William Wadsworth Longfellow, who the young man adored and took as a personal role model. He excelled at the strict classical curriculum and was admired for his literary talents. But compared to other students, he came from genteel poverty and a lineage that though it ran deep in New England, adroitly skirted connection to any of the leading families. So despite his talents he was cut out of the Hasty Pudding and other prestigious clubs. He also needed to earn money to pay his board and keep in respectable clothing. In his sophomore year he began selling essays and poems to support himself. Suddenly he was a student and a professional writer. Alger was elected class odeist and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1852, eighth in a class of 88.
He returned home to live and continued to support himself with his writing, while resisting his father’s efforts to get him to return to Harvard for Divinity School. He did enroll briefly in 1853, but evidence suggests that he may have been more motivated by the opportunity to be reunited with another student with whom he had a romantic relationship than any religious fervor. He soon left school and tried his hand as a junior editor at a Boston newspaper but hated the drudgery. Then he took up the fall back trade of the impoverished gentleman, school teaching.
He enjoyed teaching and the company of boys. From 1854 to ’56 he taught at The Grange, a boarding school in Rhode Island. When that school failed, he took a summer position at Deerfield Academy. All the while he was also writing. Many of his stories of this period were written in a feminine voice with women as the central characters. Whether this was “writing to the market” for women’s popular stories or an expression of his own sexual ambivalence is a matter of some debate. His first book, a collection of his short stories and sketches, Bertha's Christmas Vision: An Autumn Sheaf was published in 1856, and his second Nothing to Do: A Tilt at our Best Society, a lengthy satirical poem mocking the upper class types who harassed him at Harvard called was published in 1857.
Still, his father continued to pressure him into the ministry and when his teaching prospects dimmed he re-enrolled at Harvard Divinity in 1857. Despite a lack of enthusiasm, this time he stuck it out and was graduated in 1860. As a reward for finally fulfilling his ambitions, Alger’s father permitted him to go on a European tour. He was gone a year and felt totally liberated from his father’s oppressive domination for the first time.
He returned to find a nation at war. Eager to enlist, the young man who stood only 5’ 2” and still wracked by asthma, he was rejected as unfit for service. Instead, he turned his pen to patriotic themes. He also reluctantly accepted the call to the pulpit of First Unitarian Church and Society of Brewster, Massachusetts. He disliked preaching and the necessary fawning over important church elders. But he did enjoy throwing himself into work with boys. He organized games, led special Sunday school classes, preached temperance and moral virtue to the lads, and founded a group called Cadets for Temperance. His attention to boys alarmed congressional leaders, who received complaints from parents about unwanted advances on their sons. He denied nothing and agreed to be discretely separated from the Parish. His father prevented further scandal by getting Unitarian officials in Boston to agree to take no action on the condition that the younger Alger never accept another call. It was 1866 and Alger’s career as a minister was over.
His career as a writer, however, was on the upswing. In the last years of the Civil War he began contributing regularly to Student and Schoolmate, a boys’ monthly magazine of moral writings edited by William Taylor Adams. It serialized the first of Alger’s novels for boys, a three book series about boys and the war. The books were far more successful than his first adult novel Marie Bertrand: The Felon's Daughter. He was also regularly placing adult stories in prestigious magazines like Harper's Monthly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.
In 1866 he left New England—and rumors—behind to build a new life as a writer in New York City. One of his first works was a long poem, Friar Anselmo's Sin about an errant cleric who gains redemption though good work. Similarly, Alger turned his attention to the plight of the orphans and urchins that flooded the city after the Civil War. He published two more unsuccessful adult novels and a sentimental epic about a Great Lakes shipwreck called John Maynard which got favorable attention from serious critics, and even brought a letter of praise from his old teacher and hero, Longfellow.
In 1868 Alger took his experience among the street urchins of Five Points and produced a 12 part serial in Student and Schoolmate about a boot-black’s rise to middle class comfort and respectability. Ragged Dick was a huge, unexpected success. He soon revised it to be published as a novel by A. K. Loring of Boston. It became one of the biggest best sellers of the post-war period and remained in print for decades. Loring signed Alger to a contract for more novels in the Ragged Dick fashion.
Alger now mostly concentrated on his boy’s books. Dozens followed, almost all with interchangeable plots. The ambitious boys might be news butchers, luggage porters, or even street musicians. Alger sold books, sometimes under nom de plumes, to as many as sixty different publishers, many of the purveyors of cheep dime novels. The books included biographies of James Garfield, Daniel Webster, and Abraham Lincoln recast in the familiar rags-to-riches formula.
In his early years in New York he also acted as a private tutor to wealthy families. A stay with the Jewish international banker Joseph Seligman resulted in stories with poor Jewish boys for Young Israel. He stayed in the Seligman home until 1876 despite his growing success and popularity.
At the urging of his main publisher Loring, who sensed that the public was finally beginning to tire of urban tales, Alger journeyed west in 1877 in search of new material. He reconnected with his brother in San Francisco, and then returned to New York on a schooner via Cape Horn. Soon young cowboys and miners were making the same climb to riches as their urban cousins. Other stories took the boys to sea.
Despite some complaints that Alger’s books were “lurid” and occasional attempts to remove them from libraries, the rags-to-riches formula became an enduring social artifact both inspiring real boys and justifying the exploitation of the young as “character building” opportunities for young go-getters.
In the 1880’s Alger informally adopted two of his beloved street boys, Charlie Davis and in 1883 John Downie, Alger wanted to play in real life the benefactor that lifted his heroes from the streets.
Biographers and critics agree that Alger struggled with homosexuality and with romantic attraction to boys. Some find clues of sexual confusion and hidden homo-eroticism in his books. If so they are pretty well hidden. He did seem tortured by guilt and his friend William James made mention that Alger, “…talks freely about his own late insanity—which he in fact appears to enjoy as a subject of conversation.” But there is no evidence that he abused his adopted sons or any of the other children, whether wealthy tutees or urchins, with whom he was in contact after his brief ministry.
By the 1890’s Alger’s books were even more formulaic than ever, often virtual re-writes of earlier efforts with new character names and locations. He spiced the tales up with a bit of violence—often in the form of fantasy vengeance against those who had exploited the hero. He had a wide circle of friends and often did readings to groups of boys. But his popularity was waning as the century closed, and with it the income that depended on steady sales of new books. He suffered a nervous breakdown in 1896 and had to move in with his sister in South Natick, Massachusetts where he suffered from persistent lung ailments execrated by his asthma. He died on July 18, 1899 practically penniless.
After his death, his popularity unexpectedly returned. Over the next twenty years upwards of 70 million copies of his books were printed and sold. Since most of them were sold outright to the original publishers, his heirs—his sister and adopted sons—got little from them. There was another surge of popularity of re-prints during the Depression. Ragged Dick and a handful of others, mostly his earliest boys books, have remained in print ever since.