In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Horatio Alger

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Historical Background
  • Biographies
  • Bibliographies
  • Primary Works
  • Studies of Ragged Dick
  • Intertextualities
  • Race and Gender Studies
  • Reception Studies

American Literature Horatio Alger
Gary Scharnhorst
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0226


Raised in rural Massachusetts, the son of a Unitarian minister, Horatio Alger Jr. (b. 1832–d. 1899) graduated from Harvard College in 1852 and from the Harvard Divinity School in 1860. Expelled from the Unitarian pulpit in Brewster, Massachusetts, after confessing to a charge of pederasty, Alger moved to New York in April 1866 to begin a career as a full-time writer of fiction for juvenile readers. He published a serialized version of Ragged Dick in 1867 and a revised and expanded book version of the novel, his only bestseller, in 1868. During his career he twice traveled to Europe (1860 and 1873) and to California (1877 and 1890); he was also active in the Harvard Club of New York. To supplement his income from writing, he tutored the children of several prominent Jewish families in New York, including E. R. A. Seligman (b. 1861–d. 1939), later a professor of political economy at Columbia University and a founder of the American Economic Association; Benjamin Cardozo (b. 1870–d. 1938), later an associate justice of the US Supreme Court; and Lewis Einstein (b. 1877–d. 1967), later a career diplomat. Alger was the author of dozens of essays, poems, and short stories, and 103 books for young readers, and toward the end of his career he estimated his total book sales at eight hundred thousand copies. Despite the persistent notion that his heroes rise “from rags to riches,” only a few of his characters earn fabulous wealth. His young heroes normally rise not to riches, but to a secure middle-class respectability. Beginning in the late 1870s, Alger’s juvenile stories came under fire from ministers and professional librarians for their alleged sensationalism. Of 145 libraries surveyed by the American Library Association in 1894, over a third proscribed Alger’s books. Alger died of congestive heart failure at his sister’s home in Natick, Massachusetts, in July 1899. Early in the new century, his popularity began to skyrocket. By 1910, cheap editions of his moral tracts were selling at the rate of about one million annually because, in their idealization of a preindustrial order, they appealed to a nostalgic desire to reform business through a return to principles of equal opportunity and fair trade. The phrase “Horatio Alger hero,” denoting an honest and successful entrepreneurial type, obtained popular if inflated currency in the language in the 1920s, with Alger’s popularity at its peak. Though Alger’s books largely lapsed from print during the Great Depression, the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, Inc., cofounded by Norman Vincent Peale (b. 1898–d. 1993), inaugurated the annual Horatio Alger Awards in 1947.

General Overviews

Alger’s fiction became the topic of critical inquiry only after the post–World War II introduction of American studies and other interdisciplinary programs in the academy. Even then, Alger was more often read in history and popular-culture courses than in English departments, and the earliest published scholarship reflects this trend. Cawelti 1961–1962 and Cawelti 1965 proved the merit of serious discussion of Alger’s vogue at the turn of the twentieth century. Though John Cawelti’s conclusions were sometimes challenged (Coad 1972), they were more often reinforced and elaborated by rigorous scrutiny (Zuckerman 1972, Weiher 1978). The first scholarly book devoted to Alger’s entire career finally appeared almost two generations after the war (Scharnhorst 1980). The work of a political scientist, Nackenoff 1994 subjects a wide range of Alger’s writings, both private and published, to a type of rhetorical analysis.

  • Cawelti, John G. “Portrait of the Newsboy as a Young Man: Some Remarks on the Alger Stories.” Wisconsin Magazine of History 45.2 (Winter 1961–1962): 79–83.

    Rather than an advocate of unbridled capitalist success, Alger promoted in his fiction “the traditional middle-class virtues of industry, integrity, piety, social respectability, neatness, punctuality, temperance, kindness, and generosity” (p. 79). That is, his formulaic plot traced the hero’s rise not from rags to riches but to bourgeois adult respectability.

  • Cawelti, John G. “From Rags to Respectability: Horatio Alger.” In Apostles of the Self-Made Man: Changing Concepts of Success in America. By John G. Cawelti, 101–123. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965.

    Pioneering demythologizing study of Alger’s “rags to respectability” theme. “The true aim of the Alger hero is respectability, a happy state only partially defined by economic repute” (p. 110). Far from an apologist for unregulated capitalism, “there is as much evidence that Alger was an important influence on future reformers as a popular model for incipient robber barons” (p. 117).

  • Coad, Bruce E. “The Alger Hero.” In Heroes of Popular Culture. Edited by Ray B. Browne, Marshall Fishwick, and Michael T. Marsden, 42–51. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1972.

    Asserts that Alger’s heroes were obsessed with moneymaking, not the virtuous use of wealth. Success in Alger’s fiction was almost always quantified by physical assets.

  • Nackenoff, Carol. The Fictional Republic: Horatio Alger and American Political Discourse. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

    Analyzes the political rhetoric of the classically educated author’s novels in the context of his early poem Nothing to Do; his friendships with Republican politician Russell A. Alger and political economist E. R. A. Seligman; and his biographies of James Garfield, Daniel Webster, and Abraham Lincoln. Considers the “political grammar” of his fiction and ponders “the question of what made Alger as a symbol available to express beliefs” (p. 11) about the American Republic.

  • Scharnhorst, Gary. Horatio Alger, Jr. TUSAS 363. Boston: Twayne, 1980.

    A succinct and documented introduction to Alger’s life and writings, including a chapter on his early fiction for adult readers and chapters on his didactic purpose and his mugwumpish opinions about business and commerce.

  • Weiher, Carol. “Horatio Alger’s Fiction: American Fairy Tales for All Ages.” CEA Critic 40.2 (1978): 23–27.

    Alger’s fiction contains the same “identifiable character types and predictable conflicts, the same structural ingredients” (p. 23) as in the fairy tale. For example, Ragged Dick “repeats the fairy-tale formula of a journey from rags to riches. Perhaps the best analogy is the English tale ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’” (p. 23). Alger’s typical setting, moreover, “is an exciting fantasy land” (p. 24).

  • Zuckerman, Michael. “The Nursery Tales of Horatio Alger, Jr.” American Quarterly 24.2 (May 1972): 191–209.

    DOI: 10.2307/2712070

    Close analysis of the thematic threads in the early six-volume “Ragged Dick series” of juvenile novels. These novels demonstrate that against assertions “of the prerogatives of strength,” Alger championed “the obligation of the powerful to protect the weak. Against Sumnerian standards of self-reliance, he suggested an endless round of charitable reciprocation. And against the Spencerian insistence on laissez-faire individualism, he urged that ‘we ought all to help each other’” (p. 196).

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