History

Open menu

Literature

Open menu

Other

Open menu
three pairs of lovers with space

A REVIEW OF THE LOST LIFE OF HORATIO ALGER JR. BY GARY SCHARNHORST AND JACK BALES

 

The Lost Life of Horatio Alger Jr. by professor of English Gary Scharnhorst and librarian Jack Bales was published by the Indiana University Press in Bloomington, Indiana in 1985. It is 199 pages.

 

When the obituary writer says someone lived a “Horatio Alger story,” we know that the departed was born poor and humble but, with hard work, pluck, and determination, worked his way to the top. Further, that he – they are always men – was yet another example of the durability of the free enterprise dream. 

But it’s probably safe to say that not one reader in 1,000 – or even 10,000 – has read a story by Horatio Alger. 

They’ve never read “Ben the Luggage Boy,” “Jed the Poorhouse Boy,” “Mark the Matchboy,” “Paul the Peddler,” “Phil the Fiddler,” “Ragged Dick,” “Tattered Tom,” or any of the other titles that sold in the hundreds of thousands during Alger’s lifetime (1832-99), and in the millions in cheap editions from the turn of the century until about 1920, when sales plummeted and the books went out of print. But while the books disappeared, their mythology took on new and unintended proportions.   

Born in Chelsea on January 13, 1832, Alger had a New England Puritan background. His father was a struggling Unitarian minister and his mother was the daughter of a merchant named Fenno. Junior was a sickly child, asthmatic and undersized. He graduated from Harvard, class of 52, and was the class odist. He wanted to become a writer and some Boston weeklies printed his stories and poems in which the authors find clues of a homoerotic nature.

He eventually couldn’t make a living by writing and wound up at Harvard Divinity School, graduating in 1860. He traveled Europe before he was rejected by the Army during the Civil War as physically unfit. He tried again, didn’t make it and took a job as minister of a church in Brewster. He lasted 15 months until drummed out by parishioners who complained to church headquarters in Boston about his “gross immorality… the abominable and revolting crime of unnatural familiarity with boys.”

Traumatized by the experience, and thoroughly repentant, Alger was, the authors believe, a celibate for the rest of his life. 

The event forced him to become a full-time writer. He moved to New York, where he wrote juvenile stories based on his observations of the sorry life led by homeless and indigent children who roamed the city’s mean streets. In 1867 he wrote his first and best known work, “Ragged Dick or, Street Life in New York.” Alger’s rich evocation of street life, with his didactic tone more muted than it would later become, won him instant readership.

He eventually wrote 51 books for juveniles, most of which fell somewhere between the fictionalized tracts of church publishing houses and the sensational and often sanguinary pulp fiction of the time. They were always ordered by Alger’s basic humanitarianism and sympathetic nature. His stories often criticized sharp banking practices and stock swindlers. This put him at ideological swords points with laissez-faire capitalists who, oddly, later on, embraced him as one of their own. 

This interesting biography is made even more interesting because of previous Alger biographies which, to the shame of American scholarship, were literary fabrications, rife with errors. The authors trace these earlier works as well, pointing up their faulty research, or lack of any research at all, with well-taken indignation.

 

Reviewed anonymously in the October 1985 issue of the NAMBLA Bulletin (Volume VI, No. 8) pp. 4-5.