Ragged Dick

Recurring Literary Elements in Horatio Alger Novels College

Horatio Alger Jr. was the quintessential class optimist: born to privilege, if not actual wealth, and convinced that poverty could be easily cured with simple hard work, proactivity and good character. The formula didn’t quite work for him personally—he died almost destitute—but during the peak of his fame he published dozens of titles aimed almost exclusively at young male readers. The novels were wildly popular in the late 19th century, where “the American Dream” of a comfortable middle-class life was an extremely marketable cultural meme. Alger’s novels therefore featured young men who, thrust by circumstances into poverty, gradually worked their way into middle-class respectability or beyond despite occasional setbacks. The phrase “Horatio Alger story” became part of the English lexicon partly because of the kind of story for which Alger became famous and partly because of the recurring character types, themes, and plot devices Alger used to illustrate his morality tales. By creating an empowerment fantasy for his readers, he shows that a young man with the right middle-class values can overcome poverty and setbacks even as severe as being an orphan. Alger heroes never receive anything for nothing: such windfalls as they...

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