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Horatio Alger: Biography, Myth & Stories

Instructor: Amy Kasza
Horatio Alger was a popular and influential author of the late 19th century, one who is credited with creating a new fiction genre. Learn who Alger was, what drove his writing, and why his novels became so coveted during the decades immediately following the Civil War.

Who Was Horatio Alger?

America has produced many great writers in her 200-plus year history, but not all of these writers can claim to have invented an entirely new genre. Horatio Alger, Jr. could. Better known as simply Horatio Alger, the immensely popular and influential American writer worked during the years following the Civil War through the end of the 19th century. Born in Massachusetts in 1832 and educated at Harvard University, he spent nearly half of his life living and working in New York City until returning to Massachusetts in 1896, where he died while living with his sister and her family in 1899.

Early Life, Education, and Work

The son of a minister in the Unitarian church, Alger showed an early interest in writing and published a number of short pieces in newspapers that served his home community. He entered Harvard University in 1848, where among his professors was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the celebrated American poet.

Alger's status as a minister's son excluded him from membership in Harvard societies such as the Hasty Pudding club, which was dominated by the sons of prominent citizens. This experience may have been formative for his later development of a literary formula depicting impoverished youth finding acceptance among those of better economic circumstances.

Horatio Alger upon his graduation from Harvard University
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After college, Alger briefly taught school and worked as an editor before returning to Harvard's Divinity School, where he earned a divinity degree in 1860. Health conditions prevented him from joining the Army to fight in the Civil War, so he pursued a career as a minister. His first church assignment lasted barely two years, after which he was dismissed for allegations of sexual misconduct with a young boy. In the terms of his dismissal, he agreed never to seek another position as a minister, and to move far away from the Massachusetts community where the church was located. Thus in 1866, Alger moved to New York City, where he would spend the next 30 years.

Life in New York

Urban life immediately after the Civil War was dirty and distressing for someone like Alger, whose sensitive and thoughtful personality could not help but notice the poverty in which countless children without homes or families lived on the streets. He began to strike up relationships with many of the boys, who soon perceived his eagerness to help them. In return for the moral support, the boys rallied around him -- never with a hint of inappropriate behavior or scandal -- in what was seemingly a genuine bond of mutual friendship. From them, Alger learned the details of life on the streets, working as chimney sweeps, newspaper salesmen, and shoe-shiners. These vivid stories of life in poverty, and the beneficence Alger showed to the youths, became the focus of the fiction he began to publish in 1867.

The Misnomer of the Rags-to-Riches Formula

In more than 100 books, Alger created characters who tended to follow a very similar pattern: young boys who, while growing up in poverty, have the positive character traits and often good fortune to change their life circumstances. Despite the dominant character arc of rising from poverty to economic security, the Alger formula came to be mischaracterized as 'rags-to-riches,' or the concept of a poor boy ascending to great wealth and fame.

Instead, Alger's characters, like the hero of his earliest series of stories called Ragged Dick, were impoverished and often orphaned youths who scrambled to support themselves. An inherently good and upstanding character, combined with a chance encounter with a kindly older gentleman, resulted in the young boy finding a way out of life on the streets and into the lives of people who became his benefactors and friends.

The cover of one of the editions of an Alger novel
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Writing as he did after the Civil War, in New York City where thousands of youths lived lives of desperation on the streets without guardians or hope of a secure future, Horatio Alger created tales that offered inspiration and hope in an otherwise hopeless situation. His literary efforts found tremendous success, as his formulaic fiction struck a chord with readers who eagerly awaited each new dime novel, the popular term for the form in which Alger's novels were published.

Horatio Alger in later life
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