The name Horatio Alger Jr (1832-1899) remains synonymous with success; although his books are considered overly sentimental by modern standards, their influence on the American dream mythos is still X.
Horatio Alger’s own life was not as remarkable or dramatic as those he crafted in his books. Born in Chelsea, Massachusetts to a Unitarian minister and his wife, Alger’s family encouraged his early passions for reading and writing. After graduating with honors from Harvard University, he worked as a schoolteacher and magazine writer, then enrolled in divinity school. His career as a minister was brief (he was asked to leave after only two years following allegations of abuse) but it reinforced the morals and themes that would soon appear in his novels. The first of his books, Ragged Dick, or Street Life in New York with the Bootblacks, was serialized in 1867. It told the story of a poor shoeshine boy who, despite his vices, is determined to “win a respectable position in the world” and begins his climb up the social ladder after rescuing a wealthy man’s son from drowning. Alger’s novel was overtly didactic; Dick’s success hinged on his “honesty, hard work, and cheerfulness in adversity.”
Alger published more than 100 similar novels, all of which followed the same basic outline: a poor hero is forced to struggle for a livelihood; he moves to the city, where he must clear his or another’s name of false accusations; he manages to earn a degree of economic independence; he earns the admiration of an adult patron who reward him with a respectable job and social position. Alger described his heroes as:
“Manly boys, bright, cheerful , hopeful, and plucky. Goody-goody boys never win life’s prizes. Strong yet gentle, ready to defend those that are weak, willing to work for their families if called upon to do so…such boys are sure to succeed, and deserve success.”
Alger’s novels were immensely successful, and are considered a majorly influential component of the American dream canon.