Sunday, May 3, 2009

Ankle-deep in Alger-land

Spent most of this weekend in Charlottesville, only minimally on the Grounds of the University of Virginia (half a mile away), but mostly at the annual convention of the Horatio Alger Society. Why, one might ask, do I attend such a get-together? The follow-up or prefatory question could be why do I own probably 200 or so volumes written (or mostly written) by aforesaid H. Alger Jr. (1832-1899)?

A long time ago, someone (I really don't recall who) gave me an old Alger novel, assuming that any right-minded American boy would enjoy same, and I was probably about 11 or so at the time. As it happened, I found the story of some interest, not so much for the plot as for the setting. Alger was writing about down-and-out young people (almost always boys, with two exceptions), usually in old (1850-1870) New York City. I already had a good knowledge of the city and enjoyed how he depicted the sleazy areas of that time, such as Five Points, eventually obliterated by both the building of the courthouses in Foley Square and the expansion of Chinatown. His style was snappy and even a bit funny in its old-fashioned way. I was also drawn to the way books were produced and sold in those days of yore, largely before the turn of the 20th century. Publishers tried to maintain interest in an author by promising great things in the next exciting volume in such-and-such series.

Once, visiting family in Philadelphia--probably I was 14 or so by now--I managed to buy two Algers at the now legendary Leary's Book Store on Ninth Street, another lost treasure of the book trade. I still have them, purchased at the relatively high price then of $5 a book. Leary's had about five large shelves of Algers. I'm glad that I wasn't in a position then to buy them all--not that one would ever see such a display now. But I was hooked, I suppose. I liked reading the Algers, although schoolteachers and librarians regarded them as barely equal to comic books, an unfair testimony to Alger's incredible popularity. He probably sold more books than anyone until mass market paperbacks came along, always excluding the Bible and Shakespeare.

I learned more about Alger from an article by Frank Gruber that I found in the New York Public Library reference division from the fabled Room 315, once the home of the world's greatest card catalog. And as I travelled, especially when doing court studies in places like New England, I'd find the odd Alger or two in backroads bookstores, behind the woodworking tools and duck decoys (yes, I still collect the latter, although most exceed the amount I'm willing to spend). I began to accumulate them, the Alger books, that is. My Army Reserves friend, Herb Moskowitz, now Chief Registrar at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, passed along a notice he spotted in one of the many aniquarian collecting periodicals he came across--the notice mentioned that the Horatio Alger Society would be meeting soon. This was in the 1970s.

I decided to attend the first (for me) annual convention, to be held in Annapolic Junction, Md. It was at a Schrafft's motor inn alongside the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. There were about 100 in attendance and they had a book sale and dinners two nights, with lots of conversations about Alger books and juvenile books, mostly later 19th century American, of all kinds. I was fascinated. Many of the members were older and from the Midwest but one, Ralph Gardner, was a proud, charming New Yorker and I gravitated to him. Ralph had been in advertising and written for various media in New York. He clearly had enough leisure now to take on projects like editing a bibliography of Alger's works. He had unearthed some hitherto unknown Alger books and stories and even managed to publish some of them.

The Alger crew was enough fun that I put it down to try to attend again sometime. Unlike most of the membership who attended almost every year, I became a bit of a peripatetic member: in 30+ years, I've managed to make it to 10 conventions, or about one every three years. Usually I plan to go, but some trip overseas or something else comes up to thwart such plans many times. Soon after my first, I was notified through the bimonthly newsletter, Newsboy, that the next convention was being held unusually soon at Willow Grove, Pa., because the U. S. Post Office finally had agreed to honor Alger's memory with a postage stamp. I enjoyed being with everyone in a parking lot at a mall where from a platform the then-Postmaster General announced the issuance of the stamp.

Since then I've been to conventions in Salt Lake City, Catskill, NY, North Conway, NH, and West Chester, PA, for starters. I missed the two at DeKalb, IL, where the society helped establish a repository of Alger books at Northern Illinois University, but at last night's banquet at Michie Tavern, right down the hill from Monticello, where we had had a special tour, I sat with Art Young, now retired as chief librarian of special collections at NIU, and his wife Pat, who are hosting next year's, at Portsmouth, NH.

Through many conversations and some reading, I've learned a lot about 19th and early 20th century juvenile literature and explored shelves of it in many bookstores. There are members who specialize in Alger contemporaries such as Oliver Optic, who wrote civil war juvenile novels, and Harry Castlemon and Edward S. Ellis, prolific Western writers. Others know all about all of the Oz books--one car had an OZ national sticker with two bumper stickers-"Follow the Yellow Brick Road" and "Don't Make Me Release the Flying Monkeys".

The society now has short presentations on subjects related to the juvenile lit field of those days. All the various series and illustrators are examined. Many now attend annual meetings devoted to academic inquiry into Popular Culture as a whole. This may be where the society ends up, as one-third of the membership is 75 or older. I enjoy being with people who have such intensive knowledge of things like how to identify first editions and different bindings and publishers. One long-time member edited The Dime Novel Round-up for many years. I also learned much about Alger himself, beyond his inability through serious plot construction to win fame, cash, and girl for his heroes, other than through wild coincidence. But I'll save that for another time.

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