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Where’s Horatio Alger When We Need Him?

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This is a guest post from Nine Circles at Nine Circles of Debt. She’s working to reduce over $32,000 of her debt, so she has “the financial freedom to go after some of my other dreams in life.” If you like what you read here, make sure you stop by her blog, or you can subscribe to her blog here.

Way back when I was in college a very smart American History professor required that my class read a novel by Horatio Alger called Ragged Dick. The story, originally published in 1926, concerns a fourteen-year-old bootblack named Dick living on his own on the streets of New York. He works hard but is a spendthrift so he is always living hand to mouth. When circumstances result in his meeting a wealthy businessman who encourages Dick to go to school, work hard, and save his money, his life begins to turn around. He works diligently, opens a savings account and makes consistent deposits, and as opportunities befall him he is able to move away from his life on the streets and toward a life of productivity and security.

In the early part of the 20th century, Alger wrote many books with tales similar to the one in Ragged Dick—so many, in fact, that Horatio Alger’s name became synonymous with the “rags-to-riches” phenomenon that Americans love. Somewhere along the line, however, that phenomenon seems to have gotten a bit distorted.

These days we tend to equate rags-to-riches success with overnight success. We think of the American success story as winning American Idol at the age of 17, cutting a major deal with Donald Trump, or scoring a multi-million dollar windfall in the lottery. We’ve come to think of wealth and success as something that comes instantly, with little or no effort, or as the result of one big winner-take-all gamble.

But Horatio Alger’s kind of success was anything but instant. Alger’s philosophy, which fueled the incredible productivity of the 20th century, preached the benefits of hard, steady work and consistent saving as a way of being prepared for the incredible opportunities that life sometimes drops in your lap. For the most part, Alger’s heroes didn’t get many breaks, but the few that did come their way were useful only because the heroes had worked hard enough in advance to be able to jump at those opportunities.

Is it possible for Americans to re-embrace a Horatio Alger kind of outlook? Maybe. When I read blogs describing people’s diligent efforts to pay off debts and build savings, I think that perhaps we’re beginning to see the light again, that Americans can turn away from debt and build a future that is secure and ambitious. And with every post I read about snowflakes, e-funds, and debt-free living, I think somewhere Horatio Alger is smiling.

Thanks Nine Circles for the guest post!


3 Comments

  • Reply My Daily Dollars |

    Great post! I often discuss Alger’s work as representing the myth of “rags-to-riches” that is central to the American Dream. I haven’t thought much about Dick’s work ethic and savings practices. They’re a lot like ole Ben Franklin’s. I think it’s true that the myth of the American Dream as it circulates in popular culture often leaves those details out!

  • Reply Ana |

    The book was published in the second half of the nineteenth century. I believe around 1869.

  • Reply Nine Circles |

    Ana, you were right to question the publication date. On double-checking it, it appears that the original pub date was 1868. Alger’s books certainly remained popular for a long time, however, well into the 20th century. I have copies of a couple Alger books that were Christmas presents to my grandfather when he was a boy.

So, what do you think ?