The New York City of the mid-19th century was an awful place for many of its inhabitants. Areas such as Five Points (setting for the movie Gangs of New York ) were dangerous and filthy, filled with abandoned or neglected children. Many slept outside at night, and most wore assemblages of badly-fitting 'ragged' clothes. During the day they hawked matches, sold newspapers, shined shoes or picked pockets in order to eat. The authorities did little to alleviate the situation, and in a celebrated case, a street urchin found naked was represented by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Horatio Alger, the chronicler of this world to a public who may have preferred not to know that it existed, was not himself a New Yorker, having been brought up in middle-class comfort with a private school education followed by Harvard.
Though he had had some writing published, Ragged Dick or Street Life in New York With The Boot-Blacks was Horatio Alger's first bestseller, setting the template for scores of poor-boy-makes-good novels that had a massive influence on young Americans (Groucho Marx and Ernest Hemingway were among those said to have devoured his work).
The Ragged Dick Story
Set at a time when Central Park was still 'a rough tract of land', lined with workers huts, a boot-black known as Ragged Dick enters the story. His mother having died at three and his father gone to sea, Dick spends his days shining boots for businessmen, his evenings (if he has some spare coins) watching cheap plays at the Old Bowery theatre and his nights wrapped up in newspapers in doorways. If flush he will stay at the Newsboys Lodging House for 6 cents a night and buy a meal at a cafe.
After an unexpected windfall, Dick rents a squalid room which seems impossibly luxurious. In return for tutelage, he lets another boy, the once well cared-for and well-read Henry Fosdick, to share his room. This two-person self-improvement society is perfect for both. Dick gets an 'edoocation', and Fosdick a place out of the cold. Through they must live through a series of adventures, the boys find a way to strive and succeed.
The tale is a page-turner, and the reader delights in Dick's joy at such simple things as a new suit of clothes, opening a bank account and eating a piece of steak. As Alger makes clear, Dick, who by the end of the short book has become 'Dick Hunter Esq.' is very likeable. He has pluck and wit to balance his earnest strivings to be 'spectable' and despite first-hand experience of the best rogues and swindlers the city has to offer, is a perennial optimist.
Horatio Alger's lessons of success as learned by the young Dick include:
Make your own luck. Dick's big break comes when he is on a ferry crossing into Brooklyn with his friend Henry. Suddenly, they see a child fall over the side into the water. Dick wastes no time and jumps in, somehow managing to pull the child to safety. The panicked father, who could not swim, is amazed to have his child alive and promises Dick any reward. Later, the man offers Dick a job in a counting house, a job he had only dreamed of, at $10 a week, many times his current earnings. A great stroke of luck? Not really, for Dick's selflessness was the cause of this good fortune, and his diligence in self-education every night meant he could be hired without the slightest whiff of charity.
Luck happens to those who greatly increase the chances of its occurrence.
Whatever you do, do it with your utmost. Life seems to ask of us that, even if we don't like what we are doing, we have to do it well to move on to the next thing. Ragged Dick is only a boot-black, but he uses his 'profession' to save money, meet a higher class of people and generally better himself.
Become a reader. Dick meets the son of a wealthy man who he shows around the city for a day. Later, the boy's father tells Dick that 'in this country poverty is no bar to achievement' and tells of his own rise from printer apprentice to successful businessman. He notes that there was one thing he took away from the printing office "which I value more than money." When Dick asks what this was, the man replies:
"A taste for reading and study. During my leisure hours I improved myself by study, and acquired a large part of the knowledge which I now possess. Indeed, it was one of my books that first put me on the track of the invention, which I afterwards made. So you see, my lad, that my studious habits paid me in money, as well as in another way."
Be a saver, but be generous. When Dick receives an unexpected sum of five dollars he opens a banks account. The amount that builds gives him a great source of security and pride, as he no longer must live hand-to-mouth. While delighted that he is now a 'capitalist', he is quick to help a friend in need. Fosdick, the boy he shares his lodgings with, wants to get an office job instead of shining shoes, so Dick purchases a suit of proper clothes for him. On another occasion Dick helps out a buddy whose mother is ill.
Never cheat, steal or lie. Though temptations to do otherwise are often great, Dick has a personal code that "stealin' is mean". His sense of honor and fair play, which appears naive to 'sophisticated' types, finally proves to be the source of his success. For someone who lives from day to day, the belief in 'doing right' is remarkably farsighted. The character Mr Whitney tells Dick: "Remember that your future position depends mainly upon yourself, and that it will be high or low as you choose to make it."
In a book about the great writings of success, it seems unfair to devote this life lesson to a couple of paragraphs, yet it is essential. Honesty, which seems 'old-fashioned' to the fast crowd, is the basis of all enduring success, since it brings with it knowledge of the self.
Don't drink or smoke. Long before the medical results were out, Alger was calling smoking a 'filthy habit' which gave no dignity to the smoker. Drinking, of course, was even worse. It was the enemy of frugality because you could blow your week's savings in a night on the grog, and the enemy of industry because the inevitable hangovers affect your working day.
The temperance movement seems very old-fashioned today, but scores of lives would be better without even moderate intake of alcohol. It saps drive, pickles the independent mind and erodes good character.
Despite being rattling good yarns which really can inspire, the common view of Horatio Alger books is that they are quaint historical pieces with a simplistic message of striving and 'getting ahead'. Yet success can be simple if you have the basic elements of personal character and aspiration, with a bit of luck thrown in.
As Rychard Fink noted in his Introduction to a 1962 edition of the the book (Collier-Macmillan), Ragged Dick was written at the time when Herbert Spencer's writings on 'the survival of the fittest' had some influence in America. Yet Alger's idea of success included a strong element of social responsibility or 'stewardship'. You might make money, but ultimately it should be put back into society, such as Andrew Carnegie had done with his funding of public libraries. With his willingness to give to those in need, Alger makes Dick to be an example of compassionate capitalism.
Many of the villains in his books are rich boys who never had to make any effort to improve their character. Alger's main point was that striving for success is not just to 'get a fortune' but could give us tenacity, discipline, frugality and optimism - qualities which cannot be bought.
"'I hope, my lad,' Mr Whitney said, 'you will prosper and rise in the world. You know in this free country poverty is no bar to a man's advancement.'"
Born in 1832 in Revere, Massachusetts, at 14 Alger was sent to boarding school by his strict Unitarian Minister, followed by entry to Harvard University at 16. He enjoyed his time there, coming 10th in his class of 62 and becoming proficient in Greek, Latin, French and Italian.Having been forbidden to marry a college sweetheart, the heartbroken Alger defied his father by stating his intention to become a writer. He agreed to go to Divinity School, but just before graduation escaped to Paris with some friends and enjoyed its liberal atmosphere.
Back in America he was ordained and became a church minister in Massachusetts, but left for New York at the suggestion of William T Adams, editor of Student and Schoolmate. The weekly instalments of Ragged Dick in this children's monthly were wildly popular, and a hardback version became a bestseller. Alger became the toast of New York and sat on various boards and committees for improving the lot of street children. He lived for a number of years at the Newsboys Lodging House, and died in 1899.
Other books (over a hundred) include Strive and Succeed, Struggling Upward, Bound To Rise and From Canal Boy To President, about the life of assassinated President James Garfield.
© COPYRIGHT TOM BUTLER-BOWDON, 2021
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