Horatio Alger myth
The "Horatio Alger myth" is the "classic" American success story and character arc, the trajectory from "rags to riches". It comes from the novels of Horatio Alger, Jr., which were wildly popular after the Civil War in the United States.
Alger wrote over 120 books for young working-class males, a well-known early example of which is Ragged Dick, which was published in 1867. His books have been described as rags to riches stories, although often "rags to upper-middle class respectability" might be more accurate. "By leading exemplary lives, struggling valiantly against poverty and adversity", Alger's protagonists gain both wealth and honor, ultimately realizing the American Dream. The characters in Alger's stories sometimes improved their social position through the aid of an older, kindly, wealthy helping person.
Success of Alger's characters
Associating Alger's stories with the "rags to riches" trope is somewhat misleading, as his heroes often only rise from poverty to the middle class. Though some of his novels, for example Jed, the Poorhouse Boy, do detail the story of a protagonist ascending from poverty to nobility.
Some of Alger's novels assert how material wealth is insignificant unless it is paired with middle-class respectability. For Alger's characters, wealth was the product of a meritocracy, and the direct consequence of "honesty, thrift, self-reliance, industry, a cheerful whistle and an open manly face". However, in some of Alger's works there is also an implied belief in hereditary determinism, explicitly contrasting achievement based on merit. This contrasting achievement would often be another character such as a stepparent or the child of a rich family.
Criticism and analysis
Scholars have conflicting views over the validity of Horatio Alger's moral in his stories.
During the 1930s and 1940s, Alger's works were virtually out of print and many commentators seemed to have regarded Alger as a propagandist, with one referring to him as "the author who celebrated capitalist markets and insisted that in the United States, any poor boy with patience and an unwavering commitment to hard work can become a dazzling success". While those moving between income brackets and improving their socio-economic status may not be experiencing dazzling success, there is some evidence that the United States may be a land of opportunity, highlighted by, "the potential greatness of the common man, rugged individualism, [and] economic triumph".
Hunter S. Thompson
In his book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, journalist Hunter S. Thompson made repeated references to Horatio Alger during his search for the American Dream. He called the Circus Circus Las Vegas, which he considered the main nerve of the American Dream, "pure Horatio Alger". The final line of the book is Thompson saying that he thinks of himself as a "monster reincarnation of Horatio Alger...a Man on the Move, and just sick enough to be totally confident."
American filmmaker, author, and liberal political commentator Michael Moore is vocal in his opposition to the Horatio Alger myth. In 2003, Moore remarked, "So, here's my question: after fleecing the American public and destroying the American dream for most working people, how is it that, instead of being drawn and quartered and hung at dawn at the city gates, the rich got a big wet kiss from Congress in the form of a record tax break, and no one says a word? How can that be? I think it's because we're still addicted to the Horatio Alger fantasy drug. Despite all the damage and all the evidence to the contrary, the average American still wants to hang on to this belief that maybe, just maybe, he or she (mostly he) just might make it big after all."
Harlon L. Dalton
Harlon L. Dalton, Professor of Law at Yale University, not only objects to the Horatio Alger myth, but also maintains that it is socially destructive. Dalton explains that the Horatio Alger myth conveys three basic messages, "(1) each of us is judged solely on her or his own merits; (2) we each have a fair opportunity to develop those merits; and (3) ultimately, merit will out. Each of them is, to be charitable, problematic." The first message is a variant on the rugged individualism ethos…In this form, the Horatio Alger myth suggests that success in life has nothing to do with pedigree, race, class background, gender, national origin, sexual orientation—in short, with anything beyond our individual control. Those variables may exist, but they play no appreciable role in how our actions are appraised".
Dalton also believes that the deep appeal of the Horatio Alger myth is that it allows and even pulls people in the direction they want to go. Psychologically, the Horatio Alger myth opens many doors. When the odds are stacked unfavorably, one often has to convince oneself that "there is a reason to get up in the morning". Dalton also asserts that the myth serves to maintain the racial pecking order. It does so by mentally bypassing the role of race in American society, by fostering beliefs that themselves serve to trivialize, if not erase, the social meaning of race. The Alger myth encourages people to blink at the many barriers to racial equality (historical, structural, and institutional) that litter the social landscape and believe that all it takes to be successful in America is initiative, persistence, hard work, and pluck.
According to Dalton, there is a fundamental tension between the realization of the American Dream based on the Alger myth and the harsh realities of a racial caste system. Obviously, the main point of such a system is to promote and maintain inequality. Conversely, the main point of the Alger myth "is to proclaim that everyone can rise above her station in life. Despite this tension, it is possible for the myth to coexist with social reality. Not surprisingly, then, there are lots of Black folk who subscribe to the Alger myth and at the same time understand it to be deeply false. They live with the dissonance between myth and reality because both are helpful and healthful in dealing with ‘the adverse events of life. Many Whites, however, have a strong interest in resolving the dissonance in favor of the myth. Far from needing to be on guard against racial "threat[s] or challenge[s]", they would just as soon put the ugliness of racism out of mind. For them, the Horatio Alger myth provides them the opportunity to do just that".
The myth suggests we are judged solely on our individual merits, in turn implying that caste has little practical meaning, apart from race-based advantages or disadvantages. Generally Whites are more successful than African Americans, as they are facilitated by their preferred social position, while African Americans believe that they can "simply lift themselves up by their own bootstraps". It is in America's national interest, Dalton believes, to give the Horatio Alger myth a rest, because it is a myth that assures us we can have it all, when in reality, "we live today in an era of diminished possibilities".
- Economic mobility
- Gini coefficient
- Income disparity
- Social mobility
- Wealth inequality in the United States
- Scharnhorst, Gary (1980). Horatio Alger, Jr. Twayne Publishers. ISBN 0-8057-7252-9. pp. 75-76
- Alger, Horatio The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. 2007. Columbia University Press. 13 Apr 2008
- Weiss, Richard. The American Myth of Success: From Horatio Alger to Norman Vincent Peale. New York: Basic Books, Inc. Publishers, 1969.
- Sarachek, B. 1978. American Entrepreneurs and the Horatio Alger Myth. Cambridge, United Kingdom. Cambridge University Press.
- Scharnhorst, Gary, and Jack Bales. The Lost Life of Horatio Alger, Jr. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.
- Moore, Michael. Face it, you'll never be rich says Michael Moore(Spot the irony). The Guardian. 07 Oct 2003. 15 Apr 2008.
- Dalton, Harlan L. Horatio Alger. Racial Healing: Confronting the Fear Between Blacks and Whites. 1995. 16 April 2008.