Horatio Alger myth

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The "Horatio Alger myth" is the "classic" American success story and character arc, the trajectory from "rags to riches". It comes from the novels of Horatio Alger, Jr., which were widely popular after the Civil War in the United States.

Alger wrote over 120 books for young working-class males, a well-known early example of which is Ragged Dick, which was published in 1867. His books have been described as rags-to-riches stories, although often "rags to upper-middle class respectability" might be more accurate.[1] "By leading exemplary lives, struggling valiantly against poverty and adversity", Alger's protagonists gain both wealth and honor, ultimately realizing the American Dream.[2] The characters in Alger's stories sometimes improved their social position through the aid of an older, kindly, wealthy benefactor.[citation needed]

Success of Alger's characters[edit]

Associating Alger's stories with the "rags to riches" trope is somewhat misleading, as his heroes often only rise from poverty to the middle class.[citation needed] Though some of his novels, for example Jed, the Poorhouse Boy, do detail the story of a protagonist ascending from poverty to nobility.

Some of Alger's novels assert how material wealth is insignificant unless it is paired with middle-class 'spectability. For Alger's characters, wealth was the product of a meritocracy, and the direct consequence of "honesty, thrift, self-reliance, industry, a cheerful whistle and an open manly face". However, in some of Alger's works there is also an implied belief in hereditary determinism, explicitly contrasting achievement based on merit.[3][page needed] This contrasting achievement would often be another character such as a stepparent or the child of a rich family.[4]

Criticism and analysis[edit]

Scholars have conflicting views over the validity of Horatio Alger's moral in his stories.

During the 1930s and 1940s, Alger's works were virtually out of print and many commentators seemed to have regarded Alger as a propagandist, with one referring to him as "the author who celebrated capitalist markets and insisted that in the United States, any poor boy with patience and an unwavering commitment to hard work can become a dazzling success".[5][page needed] While those moving between income brackets and improving their socio-economic status may not be experiencing dazzling success, there is some evidence that the United States may be a land of opportunity,[citation needed] highlighted by, "the potential greatness of the common man, rugged individualism, [and] economic triumph".[5]

Harlon L. Dalton[edit]

Harlon L. Dalton, Professor of Law at Yale University, not only objects to the Horatio Alger myth, but also maintains that it is socially destructive. Dalton explains that the Horatio Alger myth conveys three basic messages, "(1) each of us is judged solely on her or his own merits; (2) we each have a fair opportunity to develop those merits; and (3) ultimately, merit will win out. Each of them is, to be charitable, problematic."[6] The first message is a variant on the rugged individualism ethos…In this form, the Horatio Alger myth suggests that success in life has nothing to do with pedigree, race, class background, gender, national origin, sexual orientation—in short, with anything beyond our individual control. Those variables may exist, but they play no appreciable role in how our actions are appraised".[6][page needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Scharnhorst, Gary (1980). Horatio Alger, Jr. Twayne Publishers. ISBN 0-8057-7252-9. pp. 75–76
  2. ^ Alger, Horatio The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. 2007. Columbia University Press.
  3. ^ Weiss, Richard. The American Myth of Success: From Horatio Alger to Norman Vincent Peale. New York: Basic Books, Inc. Publishers, 1969.
  4. ^ Sarachek, B. 1978. American Entrepreneurs and the Horatio Alger Myth. Cambridge, United Kingdom. Cambridge University Press.
  5. ^ a b Scharnhorst, Gary, and Jack Bales. The Lost Life of Horatio Alger, Jr. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.
  6. ^ a b Dalton, Harlan L. Horatio Alger. Racial Healing: Confronting the Fear Between Blacks and Whites. 1995. 16 April 2008.

Further reading[edit]

  • Nackenoff, Carol. "The Horatio Alger Myth", in Myth America: A Historical Anthology, Volume II. 1997. Gerster, Patrick, and Cords, Nicholas. (editors.) Brandywine Press, St. James, NY. ISBN 1-881089-97-5