May/june 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 3
Following their success as doled out in the serial magazine Student & Schoolmate during 1867, Horatio Alger’s tales of a pious, lucky newsboy named Ragged Dick were published together in May by the Boston publisher A. K. Loring. Alger would write at least 119 more stories about scrupulously strong boys like Dick, with titles like “Sink or Swim,” “Do and Dare,” “Facing the World,” and “Risen from the Ranks.” With their wicked stepfathers, timely benefactors, and clean message, the stories weren’t so far from Dickens, except in the writing and the temperament. The books proved a favorite with American boys for decades, selling more than seventeen million copies.
Alger, a former divinity student whose father was a Unitarian minister, had been called “Holy Horatio” as a child. He kept in touch with his subjects by frequenting the Newsboys’ Lodging House on the top floor of the New York Sun building, where some seventy-five boys between the ages of five and fifteen boarded and attended chapel for six cents a night. Alger visited the boys’ lodgings daily and eventually set up a writing room and bed for himself there. His stories of “Mark the Match Boy” and many others came out of his consultations with New York urchins and toughs named Jake the Oyster, Pickle Nose, Cranky Jim, and Soggy Pants. The street effects in his books were theirs; Alger cleaned up the murk and attached a payoff ending.
It wasn’t the “before” sections of his books that bothered his critics, though, so much as the “ever-after” parts: “The notion that yokels always succeed in the cities is a great delusion,” wrote H. L. Mencken. “The overwhelming majority of our rich men are city-born and city-bred. And the overwhelming majority of our elderly motormen, forlorn corner grocerymen, neighborhood carpenters, and such other blank cartridges are country-bred.” After years of guiltily handing out money to his newsboy friends at the lodging house, Alger spent his last years living with his sister in Massachusetts and was poor when he died there at the age of sixty-five, in 1899.