America's First Literary Realist: Horatio Alger, Junior

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Author: Fred Schroeder
Editor: Scot Peacock
Date: 2003
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 3,400 words

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In the darker corners of my father's library were a dozen or so books with mouldering pages which I read and reread as a grade-school child in the late 1930s. Through them I became one of the last of the devotees of the "Alger Boy" books, and like all my predecessors from 1864 on, I keep a warm spot in my memory for those books and their twenty-five-cent beef steaks, their Waterbury watches, their nights at the Old Bowery and their manifold ejaculations of astonished squires. I have smiled the serene smile of the initiate when social historians have held up to ridicule Alger and his boys and their Myth of Success. I have met middle-aged business men who have tried to live by the code of his books, and have Succeeded. And what is more, I have reread as an adult some of my favorite Alger stories and I have found them well worth reading as most remarkable books in literary history and juvenile literature.


The place of the works of Horatio Alger Junior in children's literature would seem to be indisputably low: public libraries have never stocked his works. The place of Alger's works in the intellectual history of the Gilded Age would also appear to be indisputable: Kenneth S. Lynn used Alger as the touchstone for the success myth in his The Dream of Success: A Story of the Modern American Imagination. Yet Horatio Alger and his books are truly unique when considered as juvenile literature written for pre-adolescent boys. Devoid of sentiment, romance, moralizing, nostalgia and gentility, the early books not only support the dream of business success but they also contain the germs of the literary Realism which would, a decade and more later, attempt to destroy portions of this American dream of success. Indeed Alger's early stories stand alone in their commonplace, almost harsh realism. The finest children's literature seems always to be illumined with the summer light of nostalgia--Tom Sawyer, Penrod, Wouk's City Boy; or the moonlight of fantasy--Alice in Wonderland, Wind in the Willows, or Winnie-the-Pooh; or it is set in remote times or places--Swiss Family Robinson, King Arthur, Mysterious Island, or Westward Ho! Furthermore, the finest children's literature, as the above titles might indicate, is written for adults, either wholly as in City Boy or The Mysterious Island, or with literary irony as in Winnie-the-Pooh and Alice in Wonderland. Therefore, let's try to evaluate the Alger books in their proper milieu, if we can find it.

There are some common misconceptions about Alger's works which should be cleared up first, however. For one thing, it is not true that if you've read one, you've read them all. It may be that if you've read one, you've read most, for although the last hundred of his 130-odd books were probably all hastily written pot-boilers scribbled at the insistence of his publisher and his gigantic following, Alger's early books were carefully composed stories written for a specific and critical...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420049959