Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Explaining Alger-2

So having explained who Alger was, what he wrote, his one plot, and a bit about the Horatio Alger Society, I'll now get into what continues to interest me about both Horatio Alger and the Horatio Alger Society.

Alger's career provides a window into the literary world of the second half of the 1800s. While at Harvard, studying divinity, he developed his interests in writing poetry, short stories, and ultimately, longer pieces. When he turned to writing novels for boys, there were many periodicals aimed at this audience.  School & Schoolmate, Gleason's Youth Companion, and many others could be found on newsstands and more often, were delivered to homes through the mail. Adults enjoyed Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly, which remains a prime source for Civil War coverage, but which also published fiction.Recall the immense popularity of the Dickens novels which first appeared in serial instalments in publications such as these. 

While Alger's moralizing in his novels is both characteristic of "uplifting" literature for children of those times, his portrayal of the New York of the late 1800s is fascinating.  In creating the character of Ragged Dick, he included more personality in terms of humor as well as the manly virtues. One is made familiar with such major settings in old New York as Barnum's Museum, the Astor House, and the theaters. Alger, of course, takes a dim view of youth who waste their free time at such haunts as Tony Pastor's theatre when they might be home improving their minds.

The Alger Society not only has a membership who are well versed in the particulars of Alger novels. One member has published a series of collecting studies on different publishers, there are several bibliographies that are especially useful in identifying first editions, In recent years, many members are more interested in 1850-1950 boys' series generally or in particular authors or series, and often now, not so much in Alger.

This is part of a movement to study popular culture that formed the Popular Culture Association, which presents annual conferences attended by many HAS members.  One outstanding analysis of the history of the period reflected through writers like Alger was produced by member and Swarthmore political science professor Carol Nackenoff, The Fictional Republic.

As with any popular American institution--and Alger was the best-selling author of his time--all sorts of episodes arise over the years about the subject. Herbert Mayes, who became a well-known magazine editor who revived McCall's in the 1960s, published a satirical biography about Alger that was intended to mock the trend in the 1920s of publishing "debunking" biographies.  The biography was accepted as true for years until Mayes years later conceded that it had been intended as a joke and was fraudulent.

Alger clearly regretted his behavior when a minister and wrote at least one poem later that expresses his hope that his later works would make up for his offenses. Rather than condemn him, one is more inclined to consider our more recent tendency to give offenders a second chance. In Alger's case, he provided for millions both entertainment and some heavy-handed "moral uplift" that may grate on our sensibilities but was characteristic of his times.

Since I do possess at least some of the collecting bug that has lurked in my family--my grandfather not only wrote several Lincoln books but blew much of a fortune collecting Lincolniana and one great-uncle not only was a major stamp collector but had Pony Express covers, I recognize my Alger connection as a less costly (I won't spend all that much for any book and these days, the prices have fallen anyway, even for firsts) way to enjoy history and literature of a period in America that continues to hold much interest.

The society has often invited academic lecturers who speak about writers of Alger's time as well as him. A few years ago, one discussed a contemporary, Louisa May Alcott, who possesses and deserves a higher literary reputation. Nevertheless, I recalled that in her books beyond Little Women, past which many readers rarely venture, she indulged in many of the character cliches of which Alger is guilty. In Jo's Boys, for example, there are the stereotypes of boys--good, bad, indifferent--and they are not much more personalized than some of Alger's.

Even if Alger is only remembered today in a phrase seen in obits, he helped create an ethos in American life that persists, whether or not it has become even harder for someone without means to make it to the top through hard work and moral behavior. So maybe it's not true today and might not have been very true then? It had and continues to have a powerful influence on American culture and politics, for better or worse.

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