Archive for Wednesday, March 27, 2013

On timeless themes

March 27, 2013

While you still hear the phrase occasionally, you have to be of a mature age to understand it. Just recently, a network newscaster described a man as a real “Horatio Alger” story. I decided to do an impromptu survey and didn’t find anyone who remembered who or what “Horatio Alger” was. Even at the library, Horatio Alger was unknown to the staff.

Actually, Horatio Alger Jr. was a prolific, although not financially successful author, in the last half of the 19th century. He was born in Chelsea, Mass., in 1832, and was educated at Harvard. Despite his limited financial and critical success, he coined a phrase which was used for generations. A Horatio Alger story always was about a poor, but honest and hard working boy who rose to success. It is interesting to note that while his name was once synonymous with rising from poverty to great wealth, that wasn’t the case with his heroes. Almost all of them were rewarded for their honesty with a job as a clerk and a steady paycheck. They rose from poverty to middle class, but never to the top of the financial ladder.

Most of his novels followed the same pattern. A ragged street urchin has some good luck and finds a friend who is a successful businessman and makes it to the middle class. Typical of his tales would tell the story of a young boy who was in abject poverty and struggling to survive on the streets. He might run afoul of street gang or an evil street criminal that would make his life miserable. Then, of course, fate would intervene.

There might be a horse and buggy runaway and a bag with a huge amount of money would fall into the ditch and be found by the honest urchin. Instead of keeping the money for himself, he returns the money to the businessman who rewards him with a job. A majority of his books followed the same pattern and caused some criticism. There were those who claimed that a rise in social status could come only through hard work, never luck. That didn’t stop Alger from grinding out novels with virtually the same story line and readers from enjoying the stories.

Probably his best known youth novel was “Raggedy Dick” which was written in 1868. It was interesting to me to note that all of his heroes, while very poor, spoke fluent Latin and obviously were educated. Another of the variable story lines had the poor youth risking his life to save the businessman, who rewarded him with a job.

You should remember in those days, it was tough to climb the social ladder. City streets were filled with homeless children, many of whom turned to crime. There certainly wasn’t the social concern we see today. If you were poor, that was your problem. In a few of his stories, a poor boy would fall in love with a hardworking young woman only to learn she was really a rich heiress. Of course, they married and lived happily ever after.

Alger had a deep concern for the poor, even though he came from a fairly wealthy family. He was pastor of the First Unitarian Church and Society of Brewster, Mass. A big part of his ministry was railing against smoking and drinking. He organized a local chapter of the Cadets for Temperance. He wrote books and magazine articles pointing out the evils of tobacco and liquor. In short, he was an author who had just one message – the morality of the Victorian age.

Although his writing was relatively successful financially he died virtually broke in 1899.

Since 1947, the Horatio Alger Association of distinguished Americans have given an award to an individual who has succeeded despite adversity and presented scholarships to less fortunate youth keeping the Horatio Alger theme alive.

While the stories might seem simplistic, the theme of honesty, hard work and the American dream are timeless.

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