Biographies: The Lives of Horatio Alger, Jr.

Print

Biographies: The Lives of Horatio Alger, Jr.

          The most trying aspect of studying the life of Horatio Alger is that the majority of his earliest biographies are at worst total fiction, and at best, relatively innocent borrowings from the worst. The difficulties facing the biographers are clear, and one can sympathize with such authors; for upon Alger's death in 1899, his sister Augusta, in accordance with his will, destroyed Alger's diary and all personal correspondence. Despite the dearth of primary information, several writers have tried in the century since his death to write the authoritative Alger biography, relying on fabrication inplace of exhaustive research. Thus, Alger's true life has remained an enigma. In fact, the history of the Alger biography nearly takes precedence over the man himself.
          The initial perpetrator to this century of misrepresentation is Herbert Mayes, who in 1927 was contracted to write the first full biography of the author. After a few days of research, in which a lack of evidence and many close-lipped contemporaries of Alger confounded Mayes, he decided to write instead a parody of Alger that would resemble the tell-all scandal biographies of the time. As Mayes himself confessed later:
          "Here was a project that with scant trouble that I felt I could handle in a matter of months or even weeks. All I had to do was come up with a fairy tale...the going was easy, particularly when I decided to quote copiously from Alger's diary. If Alger ever kept a diary, I knew nothing about it" (Mayes' commentary is drawn from "After Half a Century," an introduction to a reissue of his biography, Alger: A Biography Without a Hero).
The end result of Mayes' work was a near total fiction; hardly any truth remained, save Alger's name and the books he wrote. Despite his intentions to have the book clearly recognized as humor, Mayes was quite surprised to find his audience accept it as a reliable work:
          "As anyone who has read my book is aware, I made Alger out to be a pathetic, quite ridiculous character. I provided him with mistresses. I had him adopt and become attached to a little Chinese boy, and then had the boy killed by a runaway horse...I put in the mind of the character I created the delusion that some day he might be President of the United States."
It was not until the late 1970's that Mayes publicly revealed that his work was a hoax, by which point numerous authors had already written their equally fabricated denunciations and revisions of his work. It was not until 1985 that the real biography of Alger was written: Scharnhorst and Bale's The Lost Life of Horatio Alger, Jr., a text which relied only on existing documentary evidence, is the first to offer a scholarly historical approach to Alger's biography.
          Why did it take so long to find the true Alger history? Indeed, the real story is certainly not as fascinating as the figments of earlier biographers. Ironically, Alger's story seems to have been told, in part, by the novels and poetry which he published. Alger is an author who wrote what he knew, and thus the clearest picture of Alger and his motivations, it follows, can be drawn from these texts. The true story is both much more dramatic and much more human than any of the fabricators could have imagined. One of the most useful documents in reconstructing his life is a poem he wrote at the inception of his juvenile career. "Friar Anselmo's Sin," which seems to draw upon autobiographical circumstances, includes the lines, "Courage, Anselmo, though thy sin be great, /God grants thee life that thou may'st expiate." Almost every young adult novel that Alger wrote in his career was, indeed, an attempt to expiate an error made as the minister of the First Unitarian Church and Society of Brewster, Massachusetts. To fully understand Alger and his works, one must turn to his childhood; there it will be seen that the young Alger lived in circumstances similar to those of his later heroes.
          Horatio Alger, Jr. was born on January 13, 1832, a Friday. His father was a Unitarian minister for Chelsea, Massachusetts, the town mentioned in the contemporary saying "A doornail is as dead as Chelsea." Although his father was a very good minister, he was never paid well, and his family often suffered financially. To earn extra money, the elder Horatio worked as the first postmaster of the town and tended a small farm; he also occasionally taught grammar school. Regardless of his attempts, the Alger family was never comfortable, and the father was eventually forced to resign and leave town in 1844, while his remaining property was assigned to a creditor, believed to be the source of the miser figure in the younger Horatio's later works. During this fall into financial ruin, the young boy was himself a disadvantage to the family, suffering from near-sightedness and asthma. Despite his lack of physical prowess, Horatio was a boy of no slight academic ability: after his father began to teach him at six, Horatio quickly learned to read and write; by eight, he had commenced the study of Latin and algebra. After leaving Chelsea, the family moved to Marlborough, Massachusetts, where the elder Horatio resumed his ministerial duties. In Marlborough, the younger Horatio entered preparatory school. Horatio excelled in his studies and further developed his Latin abilities while also learning Greek. By the age of sixteen in 1848, the young man was accepted into the freshman class of Harvard University.
          Of his undergraduate studies, Alger later wrote: "No period of my life has been one of such unmixed happiness as the four years which have been spent within college walls" (23). He made fast and permanent friends with many members of his class, and studied under many famous personages, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow being the most significant to the young Alger. At Harvard, he began his writing career, his works including not only poetry and short sketches, but also academic essays on medieval chivalry and Cervantes. He was named the Class Poet, and at reunions much later in life, would deliver odes to the years he enjoyed so much.
          After graduation Alger was determined to earn a living based on his writing, but performed rather poorly. The major newspapers and magazines of the time refused many of his works, and those works which were accepted by such publications as the Christian Register probably garnered him little, if any, pay. During this time, Alger appears to have accepted that his literary career might not be as illustrious as he had hoped. He developed several pseudonyms, including "Carl Cantab," and "Charles F. Preston," which he used to publish those writings he considered second-rate. However, as he was not earning enough to support himself, he eventually took on a number of temporary schoolteacher positions; the work did not take much of his time, and he continued to write for monthly publications. A foreshadowing to his later troubles in life is hinted at in the majority of these published works, which were mainly short comedic sketches for adults. The works include plots of sexual subterfuge, in which a bachelor is tricked into marriage with a woman who is unsuitably old or ugly. Another work has the bachelor tricked by a letter he thinks to be from a female admirer, which is actually from a male prankster. In a serious poem published in 1854, Alger took the voice of a jilted woman who curses her lover for breaking her heart; it is at this time that Alger left Cambridge to take a teaching position in Rhode Island.
          Three years later, Alger seems to have tired of teaching, and he returned to Cambridge to enter the Theological School, where he spent the next three years. After graduation, Alger went on a tour of Europe that lasted ten months; Alger enjoyed his time abroad and wrote many letters for publication to the monthlies for which he had written before. He assumed the role of the wealthy traveler and observer. Many of his experiences were also used in his later juvenile works.
          Alger returned from Europe committed to supporting himself with his works and found himself docking in Boston at the start of the Civil War. Although he was drafted, his poor health and slight stature (Alger was 5' 2" as an adult), he was assigned to the home front for the duration of the war. However, he maintained intimate correspondence with a sixteen-year-old soldier named Joseph Dean; extant letters show that the two men had an extremely close friendship, and that Alger was very concerned for Dean's well-being.
          Following the War, Alger made his first attempt at juvenile works with the publication of Frank's Campaign, the story of a young boy who organizes a junior army while his father is fighting in the Civil War. The book was well received both critically and commercially. Soon after, Alger accepted the call to minister at the First Unitarian Church and Society of Brewster, Massachusetts. He performed his duties quite capably and his abilities were appreciated by the congregation. Unfortunately, after ministering for just over one year, disquieting rumors began to threaten Alger's new-found security. In 1866, Solomon Freeman, a member of the congregation, wrote:
          On the Sabbath after services, [a young boy] called at [Alger's] room to leave a book...[Alger] bolted his door and then, and then, committed this unnatural crime...From this single circumstance you can readily infer the depth of depravity to which he had descended" (66).
After an inquiry, two boys were found who testified that Alger had molested them. When confronted, Alger admitted that he had been "imprudent," and chose to leave town immediately. Although the congregation was prepared to charge Alger publicly, the American Unitarian Association eventually persuaded them to accept Alger's resignation and assurance that he would never again work as a minister. Alger found himself once again without steady employment, and turned again to writing. One of his first works of this time is "Friar Anselmo's Sin," which appears to dictate his method of atonement: to expiate his crime against those young men, Horatio chose to write a series of novels for young boys that contained admonitory and edifying messages. It is here that Alger's writing career truly becomes notable.
          At thirty-four, Alger moved to New York and began to study the habits of the young homeless boys of the city, at the time called "street Arabs." Alger worked actively to promote systems of public support for the homeless children of New York, and witnessed the establishment of large boarding houses, sometimes called "Newsboy Lodging Houses," which offered a cot and a meal for five cents, or whatever a boy could afford to pay. Alger himself took in several boys, each of whom he used as the inspiration for characters in his works. From his labors at this time, Alger was motivated to write one of his most popular works, Ragged Dick. Although initially printed as a serial, the work was so popular that he was commissioned to publish it in book form. Critics universally praised the novel. Finally feeling that he had found his talent, Alger proceeded to produce eighteen more novels in just six years. Unfortunately, in comparison to the rather rousing style of Ragged Dick, many of his next works were panned as insipid recreations of the same story. But despite the critic's remarks, the books all sold well, and Alger enjoyed continued popularity.
          Also at this time, Alger was offered the opportunity to live with and teach the young sons of Joseph Seligman, a former Harvard classmate; it was a job which he readily accepted. He was soon a favorite of his pupils and remained in this position for seven years.
          In 1873, Alger took a hiatus from both his literary and teaching professions to embark on a second tour of Europe. Although he found the trip to be more aimless than the previous, he nonetheless enjoyed himself; unfortunately, he returned to face the stock market crash of 1874. Scharnhorst wryly comments in his biography, "Though barely forty years old, Alger never returned to Europe. Perhaps he felt he ought spare the nation another absence" (104).
          On his return, he began to spend much of his time away from New York City in New England to protect his lungs from the soot and smoke common in the city. Following his removal from the city, he also took a tour of the Western United States. Though he continued to write prodigiously, he found himself lacking in new ideas. To resolve this predicament, he changed the setting of his works and began a series of novels that took place outside of the city and surrounding area. Only an Irish Boy, Bound to Rise, and its sequel, Risen from the Ranks all were works of this vein. Though his works still sold quite well, Alger eventually found himself in a flooded market of juvenile fiction, and his sales began to drop. At the same time, Alger began to dress up his works with an increase in criminal action and violence, similar to other lurid adventure tales such as Deadwood Dick on Deck by Edward S. Ellis. Unluckily, Alger approached this tactic just as newspapers, schools, and organizations across the nation rose up to protest this facet of dime novels. As the Boston Herald commented: "boys who are raw at reading [and want] fighting, killing, and thrilling adventures...go for 'Oliver Optic' and Horatio Alger's books."
          Alger responded to these attacks by switching genres; instead of fiction, he wrote loose juvenile biographies of American heroes. His critics could not raise complaint against these works without seeming unpatriotic. At the same time, Horatio became involved in liberal Republican political activities of the time. While he publicly criticized cutthroat business techniques, his works began to condemn wealthy investors who artificially inflated railroad stocks; several novels included villains that unfairly swindled his other characters.
          Unfortunately, his switch to non-fiction did not bolster his flagging sales. By the mid-1880's, Alger's career had entered its twilight. No longer working for the Seligman's, Alger lived in boarding houses; he also suffered from loneliness and depression. Even the once enriching company of many of his young wards began to trouble him. His works of the time represent these troubles: he seems to criticize his former employer in his Jewish misers and pawnbrokers, and many of his novels were set in a rural town like the one of his childhood. It appears that Alger was not only tiring of his place in the world, but of the world itself.
          By the mid-1890's, he seems to have given up on helping many of his young friends. In a letter to a close friend in 1896, he wrote: "I gave up my room on 34th St. because I had too many young callers who were unwelcome...For this reason please don't tell them where I am" (137). Later in the same year, suffering from acute bronchitis, Alger left New York permanently to live with his sister Augusta in Natick, Massachusetts. Although he intended this to be merely a lull in his work, he found himself, even two years later, unable to complete any new works because of health problems. In particular, Alger had a partial manuscript of a novel entitled Out for Business, that he desperately wanted to complete. Unable to do so himself, Alger choose an editor that he had worked with in the past, Edward Stratemeyer, to ghostwrite the remainder of the novel. Stratemeyer agreed to finish the work, and although he finished the work by December 1898, Alger was not able to read it due to eye trouble. On July 18, 1899, Alger died at his sister's home of heart disease, leaving instructions to his sister to make the funeral as private as possible, with as few personal details as necessary; his true age was not reported at the event, and his remains were cremated before burial. Augusta destroyed all of his personal writings and correspondence. His will left almost everything to family and friends. As Scharnhorst concludes, "Alger was gone and, but for his books, mostly forgotten."
Bibliography

Gardner, Ralph. Horatio Alger, or the American Hero Era. New York: Arco Publishing Company, 1978.

Gruber, Frank. Horatio Alger, Jr.: A Biography and a Bibliography. Los Angeles: Grover Jones Press, 1961.

Hoyt, Edwin P. Horatio's Boys. Radnor, Pennsylvania: Chilton Book Company, 1974.

Mayes, Herbert R. Alger: A Biography Without a Hero.New York: Macy-Masius, 1928.

Tebbel, John. From Rags to Riches; Horatio Alger, Jr. and the American Dream. New York: Macmillian, 1963.

[This bibliography is intended as a source of further material on Alger; however, my personal source for all information is Gary Scharnhorst and Jack Bales' The Lost Life of Horatio Alger, Jr. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985)]