How the Horatio Alger Lie Helped Shape the Myth of American Upward Mobility
JOURNALIST ALISSA QUART’S new book, “Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves From the American Dream,” seeks to discover the origins of two important American myths: that of the self-made man and that of the “the undeserving poor.” What is behind our country’s relentless demand for lonesome achievement and personal responsibility? Quart calls “bootstrapping” — derived from the phrase “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” — a collective delusion, a fantasy of American prowess that we must somehow be entirely self-sufficient to succeed, and that, if we manage this, riches await. It’s the reason our society so easily blames individuals for inequality, while our flawed systems get off scot-free. You hear bootstrapping when a CEO claims he did it all by himself, denying the thousands of workers who labor for him.
To understand the self-made-man fiction, Quart went back to some of the classics that formed this story: How, starting at least two centuries ago, some of America’s best and most popular authors helped construct the narrative that we invented ourselves. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau stressed the more elegant and literary element of that process — self-reliance — but there were plenty of crasser arbiters of the self-creation tale. Among them is Horatio Alger, whose fixation on the rags-to-riches plot line turned his name into an idiom for being self-made — “the Horatio Alger story.” Read on and you’ll discover that even Alger didn’t believe in the Horatio Alger story as it is now commonly understood, and he also had some disturbing personal secrets that he was himself papering over with these tales of boys rising in the ranks.
Quart pokes holes in these myth-makers not just for the sake of it, but to show why we should question the storyline that they led us to. When we try to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and live for ourselves first and foremost, we ignore our biology; we are a social species wired against isolation. While triumphant aloneness has been enshrined as the quintessentially rugged American biography — and the heart of every rock-climbing documentary — in the real world, such self-sufficiency will set off stress alarms in our bodies, because we are animals programmed to seek connection with, and possess empathy for, others. Quart cautions that we should think twice about this emphasis on individual achievement. Instead, she argues, what we should embrace is “anti-bootstrapping,” an alternative framework to the solitary one that has separated and shamed us for nearly two centuries. We need to move from the damaged first person to the first-person plural. In the process, it can’t hurt to understand what the champions of this philosophy got wrong so we can shake off their siren song once and for all.
Dick is a teenage bootblack who polishes the shoes of far older, richer men and at night sleeps on New York City’s pavement, sometimes under wagons whose drivers are also asleep. He has an open face and the character of a perpetual innocent despite his hard, mean surroundings. Ultimately, Dick obtains a well-paid job as an office clerk and goes by the more mature and respectable name Richard Hunter, finally cutting himself off from “the old vagabond life.”
Dick/Richard Hunter is the protagonist of Ragged Dick, the most famous novel by the 19th-century author Horatio Alger Jr., whose oeuvre — fictions of young men rising rapidly in the ranks — gave rise to the idiom “the Horatio Alger story.” These penniless boys and men who make it up the ladder of American commerce do so through pluck and hard work. If we abstract it further, a Horatio Alger story is an idea of American life that starts with indigence and ends in affluence.
More than a hundred years after Alger’s death, the phrase is still such well-known shorthand for the self-made myth that the documentary filmmaker Michael Moore said that Americans are on “a Horatio Alger fantasy drug.” The reality-TV personality and cosmetics company owner Kylie Jenner, half sister of Kim Kardashian, absurdly was profiled in the Chicago Tribune under a headline that partially read “A Horatio Alger Story for Our Time?” (the question mark clearly doing too much work here). And Alger’s name has been used to describe Michael Bloomberg, New York’s billionaire former mayor and presidential hopeful, who was born quite middle class.
It originated with the tales of the immensely popular Alger himself, who wrote dozens of books with that rags-to-riches plot. After his fourth young-adult book, Ragged Dick, he wrote roughly 100 other novels, becoming one of the most influential writers of his generation. By 1910, his young-adult novels were selling at a rate of 1 million per year. And throughout the rest of the 20th century, his name was applied widely, and people still more or less knew the author who was its origin point. (An example from the infamous 1987 memoir Trump: The Art of the Deal: The former president — by way of his ghostwriter, Tony Schwartz — writes of his father, Fred Trump, a housing developer in Queens: “His story is classic Horatio Alger.”)
Today, while the Alger conceit continues at full force, many of his books are out of print: I found only a few on the high shelf of a private library, first editions with inky black-and-white illustrations of boys with lithe physiques. In these novels, the protagonists start at the bottom of the pyramid as stock boys, bootblacks, and immigrant buskers. The books have titles like Tony the Tramp, a young, lost boy who becomes a millionaire by the end, and gets his rights to his English estate back, or Paul the Peddler, who sells men’s neckties and then steers his way to solvency. Yet almost all of these books are, if read closely, not Horatio Alger Stories™ at all. Rather, they run on the idea that every self-made young man in fact has a hidden dependency on a more privileged person, usually an older man. In Ragged Dick, the eponymous hero befriends respectable older men — Mr. Greyson and Mr. Whitney — who cross his path by sheer luck, and they help him make it off the streets. He ultimately makes it out of poverty permanently due to special treatment by James Rockwell, a rich patron and industrialist.
In other words, in Alger’s books the poor young boys do not make it entirely on their own. As Alger scholar Carol Nackenoff told me, Alger’s boys “escape precarious financial circumstances” because they are “taken notice of by someone able to give them a chance,” usually an older rich gentleman. They wind up having to depend on an older rich person because there is no other systemic support. The main device of Alger’s stories is not pulling-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps but exploiting-intergenerational-attraction to boost one’s social status. This was perhaps part of why the novels were set in an earlier, less industrialized time that would allow boys to run into men who might rescue them.
Alger himself was not so far from the Horatio Alger story biographically. Though a Harvard Divinity School graduate, he got famous and rich on his own early, due to his own penchant for publishing book after book — literary overproduction, I suppose, could be considered its own version of bootstrapping.
But Alger’s life didn’t follow a Horatio Alger story in a crucial way: Alger had a very public fall from grace when he was young, discovered to have engaged in pedophilic acts. Alger’s pedophilia, in fact, was the buried truth of his life and the tainted centerpiece of his unwritten biography, not the one found in the well-known Ralph Gardner one, Horatio Alger: Or, the American Hero Era.
This secret was exposed before Alger published his more popular books, back when he was a parson at a church and discovered to have indulged in “unnatural acts” with two young boys. A member of his congregation, Solomon Freeman, writes in an 1866 account that when a young boy “called at [Alger’s] room to leave a book … [Alger] bolted his door” and then “committed this unnatural crime.” One of his victims was a 13-year-old who told his parents the new minister had molested him. The other was 15. Alger was accused of “the abominable and revolting crime of gross familiarity with boys,” in the words of a parish report to church hierarchy. Alger admitted at the time that he was “imprudent.” He was, according to records, “run out of town by a howling mob.” But it was a touch less dramatic than that. His father, also a minister, told officials of the church that his son would never again seek a position in the ministry if they allowed him to quietly leave.
Alger resigned from his Congregationalist church, slinking out without a mark on his record, likely due to his own relatively privileged status as the minister’s son. Alger then spent the rest of his life creating fictions about ephebes and young men, and older fellows like Mr. Whitney and Mr. Greyson helping boys get off the street.
The more I researched Alger, the more I believed that the storyline of Alger’s novels, that was popularized as the Horatio Alger story, emerged out of the ashes of his own personal transgressions. His life story morphed from his longing for young boys into the ultimate story of young boys’ exerting mastery over the adults and the world around them, perhaps his own identification with powerless male teenagers.
As James Martel, a professor at San Francisco State University and the author of the paper “Horatio Alger and the Closeting of the Self-Made Man,” put it to me, Alger’s “obsession with self-reliance masked his repressed sexuality,” as Alger “sublimated his desire for adolescent boys into a lucrative literary career writing tales for young male readers.”
As Michael Moon observes in his 1987 essay about Alger, “’The Gentle Boy from the Dangerous Classes’: Pederasty, Domesticity and Capitalism in Horatio Alger,” in “each book, a boy is ‘saved from ruin,’ from possibly becoming a criminal or a derelict, by being fostered as a candidate for recruitment into the petty bourgeoisie.” The American public has forgotten the tawdry and illegal Alger backstory, if they ever knew it. The outré parts had been whitewashed.
After he was run out of the ministry in Brewster, Massachusetts, in 1866 (he was brought up in Chelsea, near Boston), the boyish author, five feet two at full height, began to churn out novel after novel, from Westerns to what now might be called young-adult literature. He found some of his material as a result of being fixated on the thousands of neglected children in the streets of New York City — the urchins — an activist cause célèbre at the time. He spent his free time observing these homeless kids — one historical observer put their number in New York City in the 1870s at tens of thousands — and took the seeds of his most successful books from New York City’s lost boys themselves, who were selling newspapers and hanging out on the docks. Alger was reputed to gather the boys to him like the Pied Piper, giving them money and candy. In his rooming house on St. Marks Place, Alger held a proto-meet-up for them. We have no idea how he behaved with them in private or with the two street boys whom he eventually adopted and housed in his apartment: They had far less power to be heard than small-town churchgoing boys in Massachusetts with their nuclear families intact. Whatever the case, it’s clear Alger found inspiration for his novels from these youths as well as the adult muckety-mucks he knew. His friends ranged from the waifs he tutored to the most famous literati of his day.
In addition, the economic contours of his historical moment shaped his plots. Alger started his literary career after the end of the Civil War, when most of the rich came from wealthy households: He was writing in the spirit of his time, which was suffused with a longing for social mobility. Finally, Alger found inspiration in the founding fathers of self-sufficiency, like Benjamin Franklin. Two of Alger’s novels were based loosely on the life of Franklin. Franklin, in his autobiography, described how he rose up, creating a printing house by doing even the basest work entirely himself — collecting reams of paper, which he would push down busy city streets in a wheelbarrow. In Poor Richard’s Almanack, Franklin extols hard work as the ingredient for societal buoyancy, as he quotes Proverbs 22:29: “Seest thou a Man diligent in his Calling, he shall stand before Kings.”
His grander historical influences, and even his many years of popularity, didn’t help him retain his standing in publishing, however. Toward the end of his life, he wrote biographies of American presidents, but they were considered overly potboilerish.
Nevertheless, after his death in 1899, his reputation grew. The Saturday Review in 1946 compared soldiers coming home from World War II to Alger’s characters, even when they benefited from one of the great social supports, the G.I. Bill: In “Horatio Alger fashion, so to speak, the veteran will be able to pull himself up by his educational bootstraps.” Two decades or so later, Ronald Reagan intersected with the Horatio Alger story in more ways than one, winning the 1969 Horatio Alger Award when he was governor of California, his personal rags-to-riches story part of what was said to make him Algerian: “Reagan’s father was an alcoholic who lost his job on Christmas Eve, at the onset of the Great Depression, and struggled thereafter to support his family …” (Reagan, in fact, has been thought to have exaggerated the extent of his father’s alcoholic desperation for bootstrapping effect.)
In all of these moments, the Horatio Alger story, like “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” was synonymous with the story that hard work brings about success, rather than admitting to a more complex plot. It’s a story that feeds into popular opinion of our day: According to a Pew study released in 2020, 53 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning people say that “hard work” is the explanation behind wealth, despite the omnipresence of income inequality that tips the scales no matter how exhaustively one labors.
Today, the Horatio Alger Award and Association still exist, and the group has rewarded a motley crew from Dr. Norman Vincent Peale (author of The Power of Positive Thinking) to Ronald G. Wanek, the founder and chairman of the board of Ashley Furniture Industries Inc., the largest furniture manufacturer in the world, which also has a dark secret. In 2015, while Wanek was at the helm, the company racked up $1.76 million in fines for Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) violations, and within three years, at the company’s Wisconsin factory alone, there were more than a thousand worker injuries, according to the OSHA site.
Meanwhile, as strange as Horatio Alger’s own biography, novels, and the association may seem, even in 2022, the Alger myth lingers.
But we need to teach Americans what the Horatio Alger story really means — the lies and the needs and the toxins embedded in this master narrative. Alger scholar Martel observes that Alger’s “tales of dependence, intimacy, and connection are repackaged as tales of autonomy and the triumph of the self. The transformation happens before the reader’s eyes, and Alger is very much in on this conspiracy.” For the terms of this American icon to be challenged broadly, or even undone, it would call for a mass tutorial about the hypocrisy at its very origin.
After all, if every love story is a ghost story, as one novelist wrote, every Horatio Alger story is also the story of a lie.
Alissa Quart is the author of five books of nonfiction including Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream (Ecco, 2023), Squeezed and Branded.
Co-published with Rolling Stone.