Why Horatio?

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Why Horatio?

          The juvenile works of Horatio Alger are certainly not all noble contributions to the corpus of English literature; certainly, in reading half a dozen of his novels, the perceptive reader will have ample proof that Alger lacked any particular depth of imagination and creativity. Alger was, especially for many of his later works, writing to support himself. The expedience of his writing led to formulas for experience rather than shrewd analysis of human behavior. His characters are shallow, their motivation transparent, and the plots clearly recycled. His style is plodding at times, and at others frustatingly didactic. So, why study the juvenile works of Horatio Alger, Jr.? The formulas Alger employs are culturally centered. They are strongly didactic and work only insofar as they effectively address the social concerns and aspirations of adolescents facings the uncertainties of growing up male in a polyglot America that exudes confidence and certainity to mask its lack thereof as its population and geographical territory burgeons. The frontier has been closed, but blank spaces are rapidly being filled in. The idea of the frontier, even in urban slums, provides a kind of fairy tale orientation in which a Jack mentality can be both celebrated and critiqued. In brief, Alger's works are intended for the young whose motivations for action are effectively shaped by the lessons they learn.
          Like fairy tales, Alger's novels occupy a very singular location in the American psyche. There is always a rich openness of possibilities amidst apparently insurmountable frustrations and constraints. And, like a fairy tale, the plots repeatedly rework the individuation of the hero as he locates his ownj path. Like Marie-Catherine d'Aulnoy's "Finette Cendron," which recreates a less than passive Cinderella, Alger's heroes have always been admired for their pluck. But cultural perceptions of what that pluck might be has shifted in the 20th century in ways that reflect the readership more than the authorship. In the 1920's and 30's, the Horatio Alger plot was viewed from the perspective of the Progressive movement as a staunch defense of laissez-faire capitalism, yet at the same time criticizing the cutthroat business techniques and offerning hop to a suffering young generation during the Great Depression. Subsequently that message was lost in different political rhetoric. By the 1950's, Alger's hero was no longer a poor boy who, through determination and providence rose to middle-class respectability. He was instead the crafty street urchin who through quick wits and luck rose "from rags to riches."
          In less than half a century, Alger's themes had been transformed from their initial nature to a modern day Male Cinderella story. This transformation is not without bias, and it is the attempt of this project to explore the connection between the Alger novels and the Male Cinderella fairy tales. There are certain archetypal figures that appear: a hero of quick wits, a "fairy godmother" character, and other minor helpers; and there are impediments to the hero's rise. Yet the hero typically rises from poverty to wealth and renown, if not nobility.
          In Alger, we have a modern adaptation of Jack tale. The heroes of Alger's stories are poor young boys that are clever, and they do face difficulties that seem at times insurmountable. However, the true Americanization of this fairy tale occurs in its subversion of this claiming of nobility; rather, the Alger hero achieves the American Dream in its nascent form, he gains a position of middle-class respectability that promises to lead wherever his motivation may take him. Although every Alger novel ends with a summation of what happened to the characters following the story, they typically end with the hero achieving modest but sufficient wages as a clerk in a larger business, with the hero at Harvard at the top of his class, with the hero marrying his (until now minor) love interest. At every end, the hero retains the same drive and ambition with which he started, but with greater means available to him. In a fashion, this mirrors the fairy tale ending of "...and they lived happily ever after." Although happiness has been achieved, the reader can stretch to the limits of his imagination what such determined characters can achieve in their new social positions. After Cinderella married the Prince and became Queen, after Jack married the Princess and became King, after Harry Raymond married Maud Lindsay and became partner of the New York Office, what did they do then? It is this commonality that fixes Horatio Alger firmly in the ranks of modern adaptors of the Cinderella myth.