Books

The biggest lies of the Horatio Alger myth

Let’s get something out of the way before we begin: the title of the book we are about to consider, Ragged Dick, is simultaneously hilarious and unintentionally obscene.

Let’s share a hearty laugh now, for it’s the last laugh we’re gonna have as we plunge into Horatio Alger’s 1868 bootstrapping propaganda piece.

Ragged Dick horatio alger

Ragged Dick, as the name suggests, is one of author Alger’s raggediest rags-to-riches tracts. Our hero’s circumstances at the opening of the novel are like something out of Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives. The book, Alger’s fourth and his most commercially successful, firmly established the so-called “Horatio Alger myth.” In fact, it was only by riding on Ragged Dick’s tattered coattails that the author hauled himself out of obscurity to the lofty status of professional writer.

The plot of Ragged Dick is the quintessential “hard work will set you free” Horatio Alger myth in action. Young Ragged Dick, age 14, is a homeless shoeshine boy living hand-to-mouth on the rough streets of ante-Central-Park New York City. The kid is a fast-talking, quick-witted orphan who has no one to depend on except himself. Though lacking in education, social connections and a decent set of clothes, Ragged Dick is determined to make something of himself; to become “respectable.”

How inspiring!

However!

Horatio Alger’s earnest aspiration to inject some realism into his story backfires tremendously for the modern reader. Put simply, the life of a 19th-century adolescent bootblack sounds pretty swanky.

The opening of our tale finds Ragged Dick rising unhurriedly after staying out past midnight so he could catch the latest hit show at the Old Bowery Theater. The previous night, he cheerfully blew all the money he’d earned during the day on entertainment, food and drink (the alcohol-kind — yeah, the teen drinks). Ragged Dick just yawns, pops a cap on his uncombed hair, and saunters out to hustle the office drones hurrying to work, buffing their shoes for a dime a shine.

After a couple quick spit-and-polishes, he bops off to a restaurant have steak for breakfast, which sets him back all of 10 cents. In Dick’s world, a week’s rent for a one-bedroom unit is just 75 cents. If you get hurt and are admitted to the hospital for a week, you’ll be discharged with a bill of $3. That’s a mere $1.90 for a steak, $14.30 for rent and $57 for catastrophic medical expenses in today’s dollars.

Ragged Dick knows how to treat himself, gambling profligately and smoking good cigars (“Dick was rather fastidious about his cigars, and wouldn’t smoke the cheapest.”) And he eats all his meals in restaurants and goes out every single night and blows all his earnings with his juvenile shoe-shining collogues on something that sounds delicious — and expensive — called oyster stew.

So, in summary, Ragged Dick dresses as he pleases, sets his own hours, eats out every meal, and has enough disposable income and free time to party every night till midnight? Oh, and remember how Dick yearns to be “respectable,” i.e. a middle-class white-collar worker? Alger notes, “There were not a few young clerks who employed Dick from time to time in his professional capacity who scarcely earned as much as he.”

Oh, Horatio Alger, you have convinced me: I want to be a 19th-century teen bootblack!

Shoeshine kit

But that was not Mr. Alger’s intention — not by a long shot. He sought to inspire his young (male) readers to reject a life of dissolute late-sleeping and cigar-smoking and steak-eating so that they could grind away until their dotage in poorly paid but “respectable” middle-class jobs.

And what was the starting salary for one of these “respectable” office jobs back in 1868? $3 per week (or just $57 in today’s dollars), according to Ragged Dick’s ambitious buddy, Fosdick.

Fosdick, like some kind of evil trickster god, convinces Ragged Dick that what he needs to do is chuck the shoeshine racket and get an office job. That’s what Fosdick does. But he only manages it because Ragged Dick — he of the abundant disposable income — rents an apartment and lets Fosdick live with him rent-free.

Ragged Dick can easily afford to cover the rent because he’s pulling in $7 a week shining shoes and his expenses are just $4 a week. Also, a random rich guy gave him enough cash to cover nearly two months’ rent for showing his nephew around NYC for the first 80 pages of the book, but that’s neither here nor there when you’re struggling to figure out how to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.

And then comes the turning point of the book: the moment Horatio Alger sets out to prove that thrift, self-improvement and self-denial are reliable roads to a stable life.

When starvation-wage-earning office drone Fosdick is sent on an errand to Brooklyn in this era before the Brooklyn Bridge, he must take a ferry across the East River. For a lark, Ragged Dick decides to tag along. On board the ferry is a very wealthy man and his careless Dennis the Menace prototype of a son. Of course the little dickens falls in the water and, this being the 19th-century, of course the ferry captain doesn’t stop the boat or show any interest in saving him.

Mr. Moneybags has no choice but to holler, “Who will save my child? A thousand — ten thousand dollars to anyone who will save him!”

Ten thousand dollars. That’s the equivalent of nearly $191,000 nowadays. A lad could buy all the steaks in the five boroughs with that motherlode of cash. Ragged Dick jumps straight into the nasty backflow and saves the whippersnapper.

And here it comes: Horatio Alger’s big moment. When Ragged Dick presents himself the next day to collect his reward and the cash-cow industrialist inquires, “Tell me about yourself and what plans or wishes you have formed for the future,” all Ragged Dick has to say is, “I’m a poor bootblack who wishes no longer to be a child laborer,” and the ten thousand dollars would have been his.

But what does he say instead? What idiotic notion has Loki-Fosdick implanted in his mind?

In lieu of the reward, Ragged Dick blurts out that he wants a job in a store or a counting house!

So Mr. Capitalist, being no dummy, offers him a job as a clerk in his counting house — basically what impoverished Bob Cratchit did for a living under the auspices of Number One Boss Ebenezer Scrooge. And we all know how well Bob C. did for himself in that career.

Ragged Dick is astonished and so very grateful to be offered the unheard-of salary of $10 per week in recompense for rescuing the boy-overboard. What a happy ending! Ragged Dick gets a white-collar job with a middle-class salary and can pitch his bootblacking brush away forever.

But he could have pitched his bootblacking brush away and lived a comfortable middle-class life without having to work ever again, had he just taken the ten grand and run.

Instead, he’s earning just $3 a week more than he did as a shoeshine boy.

He has lost every scrap of his independence (think you can party all night, roll out of bed at the last minute, and mosey into work with uncombed hair and a hangover when you’re working at a counting house, Ragged Dick?)

And at the rate of $520 a year in wages, Ragged Dick’s new boss could squeeze 192 years of labor out of him and still never pay him all of the $10,000 he promised. And he’s getting the benefit of Ragged Dick’s labor to boot.

Horatio Alger failed in his mission. He convinced me that striving for a middle-class existence through humility and hard work is a terrible thing. Ragged Dick never needed to pull himself up by his bootstraps — he was already mighty high to begin with.

Instead, it’s clear that we all need to pull ourselves down by our bootstraps. Be our own bosses at shockingly high-paying manual labor jobs. Find some rich friends who will give us expensive gifts, job offers and handouts of cash. And retire the minute good luck steps in to set us up for life.

By the way, Ragged Dick’s real name is Dick Hunter.

I will not be held responsible for the filthy jokes that may occur to you me.

the delve