Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Explaining Alger

Why do I attend the annual convention of the Horatio Alger Society? And why did I agree to host the confab this year, a challenge that only wrapped this past weekend when the convention ran successfully under my stewardship in Annapolis? Finally, why did I agree to accept being vice president for the next two years?

You might first ask who was Horatio Alger and why am I even interested in him and his work. He is recalled today only, based on his approximately 120 novels for boys (with two heroines) that extolled the work-hard, become-successful theme, when someone dies who rose from nowhere and his life is described as a "Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story."

He was born in 1832 in Massachusetts and like all well-bred New Englanders then, attended Harvard, from which he graduated in 1852, in divinity. We forget that Harvard began as a divinity school for Puritans. He was clearly a college litterateur, writing stories, poems, and serving as class day speaker. His career in the cloth crumbled when he was accused of molesting two boys and blew town, leaving his minister father to clean up the mess by promising that Horatio Jr. would never fill a pulpit again.

And he never did. He repaired to New York City and began to pen tales of the children of the street, who made their spare livings as bootblacks, runners for financial houses, and other bottom-rank work. He developed a snappy style that appealed to younger readers of the second half of the 19th century. His third book, Ragged Dick, was set in the New York of the 1870s--sort of the flip side of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence. His lead character was engaging, nervy, brave, and sometimes even funny.

This book was the one that broke open the market. Parents, aunts and uncles gave Alger books to sons, nephews, and grandchildren. Alger took lodgings at the Newsboys' Lodging House, advising the superintendent and learning about life on the streets from the boys who resided there. He took trips out west and several novels followed. This was a one-plot writer: boy on farm faces family disaster when local squire is about to foreclose on farm, so he seeks fame and fortune, encounters nasties in big city, works hard, avoids smoking and drinking, performs act of bravery, is befriended by rich man, and achieves fame, fortune, and girl, sometimes rich man's daughter, and not necessarily in that order.

It all comes together, spurred always by coincidences, because our man was not too strong on creative plotting. He must have figured that one would do. By the time he died in 1899, he had sold millions, but unlike his heroes, he had given much away and died relatively without much in the way of assets. His assistant, Edward Stratemeyer, finished about ten unfinished novels, and then started a syndicate, eventually hiring writers to create Tom Swift, the Hardy Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, and many more. The Syndicate is still in business.

Someone gave me an Alger book when I was in junior high. My excellent English teacher told me to lose it. Librarians had banished these young-adult (as they would now be known) volumes at the turn of the century because they lacked the gravitas of the classics. The image stayed that way, as attested to by my English teacher.

I liked the style and found the plots and the classic values of modesty, sobriety, and the rest of the Scout law amusing. I started picking up Alger books in second-hand book stores and antique stores. When I started to travel, often all around the Northeast and later the U.S., I would seek them out. I bought them by mail as a teenager from the fabled Leary's Book Store in Philadelphia. Before long I had a collection. I almost entered it in a book-collecting contest when I was at Cornell. I bet the librarians there would have given me the heave-ho.

A friend who read antiquarian publications saw a notice for the Horatio Alger Society and knowing of my collection, suggested that this might be something I'd find of interest. I joined up but only attended every three or four years because I travelled often and usually was unable to make the May conventions. They were attended mostly by collectors and book dealers and some who found Alger interesting. The folks who worshipped his values gradually disappeared over the years. Some university librarians and professors joined and I found their company stimulating.

The society tended to meet outside beltways of third-level cities and looked for motel rooms for under $50. You could get the books you needed at the annual auction and book sale. Much that was auctioned was sold that night in private sale and more went on sale the next day at the book sale.

Gradually the society began to have speakers on both aspects of Alger and other series books for boys. The other authors of that genre were William T. Adams, writing as Oliver Optic, Harry Castlemon, and Edward S. Ellis. G.A. Henty captured the spirit of the British Empire in With Wolfe at Quebec, or With Clive at Plassey, etc.

--to be continued--

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