Alger-related ramblings

May 23, 2007

I major in history at school, and I really like it. I don’t think I’d want to be an English major, and yet when I find myself trying to come up with topics for my thesis, all I can think about are books.

That’s why I spent my shower this morning thinking about an imaginary paper that I would barely need to do any additional research for about money and capitalism in Horatio Alger.

See, I was thinking about Alger, and the fact that, although the whole Alger Myth thing is ridiculous and also wrong, he really was tremendously important. And then I was kind of mentally comparing him to Oliver Optic to try and figure out why, and it didn’t take long to figure out that it’s all about the money. The kids in Optic’s books often are poor at the beginning and richer at the end, but I doubt whether anyone could tell my the exact state of any Optic character’s bank account, while I tell you all about Ragged Dick‘s Richard Hunter’s, as well as the two adjoining lots he buys on forty-fifth street, which are each 25 by 100 feet. He pays five hundred dollars apiece for them, and five years later is able to sell them for five times that much. Meanwhile, his annual income has reached $1400. And that’s just a couple of the more sensational financial details in Fame and Fortune, the sequel to Ragged Dick. It’s actually much more interesting to track the progress of Dick’s store of cash when it consists of $1.15 and he has to spend the fifteen cents on breakfast — a cup of coffee, a beefsteak, and a plate of bread.

I guess what I’m trying to get at here is that in Alger, the real story is about money, and not in the abstract. These books are filled with numbers: earnings, prices, investments, and even the occasional loss. The Alger Myth is nonsense that is only vaguely related to the actual content of the books, but the real mythologizing going on is even more inextricably connected to American capitalism than the “bound to rise” trope.

I’m not going to say anything more about that, because I might actually want to write this paper sometime, but I was reading Fame and Fortune for the first time yesterday — it’s not up on PG yet, but it’s currently in post-processing and I downloaded the most recent version of the text — and I found myself thinking about Alger more abstractly than I usually do. And wow, Alger was such a hack. I mean, these things read like fantasies or fanfiction or something — the kind of stories where the entire world is free to revolve around the main character because hey, this is pure self-indulgence and nobody has any illusions about that. And then I remember that Alger was a bestselling writer and my head kind of hurts.

Honestly, though? I love these books. I wouldn’t keep reading them if I didn’t. Also, everyone should go take a look at my new “about the blog” page.

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