Monday, January 11, 2010

Formula For Success?

Congratulations to Kathy Amen of Hometown Tourist, winner of twenty points in the competition to identify the man in the photograph in my previous post.

Although she didn't reveal the secret of her methods in making a spot on "random guess," I have my suspicions. You see, Kathy is a government information librarian, and I believe her brain is extra well developed to take a simple hint (a logical subject to explore for my upcoming American Dream class) and rifle through her mental card catalog of people who might relate to this topic. Though we've never met, I imagine Kathy is a match for the wonderful Katherine Hepburn character in Desk Set. A researcher extraordinaire, with a vast range of knowledge, able to make connections and understand how things relate.

The subject in the photo was Horatio Alger, Jr. His connection with the concept of the American Dream is found by examining the dominant theme of the novel series he wrote in the late 1800's. Columbia University Encyclopedia defines his work thusly: By leading exemplary lives, struggling valiantly against poverty and adversity, Alger's heroes gain wealth and honor. Wikipedia elaborates:

Many of Alger's works have been described as rags to riches stories, illustrating how down-and-out boys might be able to achieve the American Dream of wealth and success through hard work, courage, determination, and concern for others. This widely held view involves Alger's characters achieving extreme wealth and the subsequent remediation of their "old ghosts." Alger is noted as a significant figure in the history of American cultural and social ideals.

His first popular novel, Ragged Dick, was serialized in 1867. In the intervening 143 years, Alger's work has become synonymous with the concept of someone who achieves the American Dream. The term "He's a real Horatio Alger story" is frequently applied to anyone who makes it big from modest beginnings.

Numerous sources on the internet and in print repeat a few basic phrases in defining a formulaic Horatio Alger story: rags to riches, a rise from poverty to wealth through sheer determination and good works. But the truth is that there's a key element that's left out of these definitions. Stephan Kanfer notes in Horatio Alger: The Moral of the Story:

Virtually all the narratives followed the template of his earlier efforts: a youth is beset by destitution and the temptations of the wicked city. Soon he is betrayed by a trusted associate. But with the help of a wise mentor he picks himself up, dusts himself off, and, with honesty and diligence, ultimately triumphs over circumstance. That was what Alger's public demanded, and he saw no reason to disappoint them.
Wikipedia explains the "mentor" factor:
In fact, the theme became synonymous with Alger, whose formula for success was based on luck, pluck, and virtue.

Essentially, all of Alger's early novels are the same: a young boy struggles to escape poverty through hard work and clean living. However, it is not the hard work and clean living that rescue the boy from his situation, but rather a wealthy older gentleman, who admires the boy as a result of some extraordinary act of bravery or honesty that the boy has performed. For example, the boy might rescue a child from an overturned carriage or find and return the man's stolen watch. Often the older man takes the boy into his home as a ward or companion.

Why is this "helping hand" usually ignored? It's a critical factor, and should help to guide public policy. Instead, the dominant perspective is that if you are honest and hardworking, you'll get ahead.

I was, naturally, curious to know if this mirrored Alger's own life. Was his life a rags to riches story?

What I read surprised the heck out of me. I'd never heard it before. Professor X, who often seems to know everything, was totally ignorant. Even my Mom, who was well familiar with the term Horatio Alger story, didn't know this explosive tidbit.

Have I built up suspense enough? Are you dying of curiosity? Never fear; I am here to titillate enlighten and astound educate you.

Horatio Alger Jr. was the son of a Unitarian minister. He graduated from Harvard and had mediocre success as a book and magazine writer, so he went back to school - Harvard Divinity School - and was hired as a minister on Cape Cod for a Unitarian Church. Then some of his young (13 year old) male parishioners accused him of molestation. An investigation yielded charges of "the abominable and revolting crime of gross familiarity with boys," and Alger was permitted to resign, with the stipulation that he leave town and never serve as a minister again.


Kind of makes you wonder about the title of his first novel. Admit it, you snickered when you read the title on the illustration above.

This sure puts a sinister spin on the whole wealthy older man mentor thing, don't you think?

Alger moved to NYC and spent a great deal of time with impoverished young men (hmmm) and began writing for journals of moral literature for children. Although his work was wildly successful (think Stephen King's sales of his day), Alger never became rich. He died in 1899 at the age of 67. Upon his death, his sister destroyed all his personal papers. (hmmm)

I'll bet you that 99% of the journalists and writers who employ the term "Horatio Alger story" have no clue about these aspects of his life.


phd in yogurtry said...

Put me in the category of those journalists who do not know who Alger is. The name rings a bell but I would have had no idea who he was/what he stood for. But then, you would never hear me mention his name, either.

A friend's father chose the name "Dick" as a nickname for himself, out of the blue (his given name bears no resemblance), so apparently, years ago (before dirty minds prevailed) Dick was a cool name.

phd in yogurtry said...

Not implying my writing is of journalistic quality, just that I was putting myself in the H.A. category. Oh gads, you know what I mean.

Kathy Amen said...

I am *so thrilled* to have won the 20 points and can hardly wait to start spending them 8-).

Your hint was what called HA up out of the old filing cabinet. I'll have to find that Hepburn/Tracy movie you mentioned; it's one I haven't seen.

What an amazing story! I had never heard an inkling about the other side of the guy. Although, to be truthful, what little I did know about him is just about summarized in the "HA story" expression. Isn't research wonderful fun, though?! I hope you come up with more odd and fascinating gems in preparing this class. Do share them if you do!

Fantastic Forrest said...

PhD, have you been drinking this evening? What exactly does "putting yourself in the H.A. category" mean? I am more than a little afraid of this answer, but we ask the tough questions here at Traveling Through Time and Space.

Your comment about the name "Dick" reminds me of the campaign line when Nixon was running: You Can't Lick Our Dick.

Fantastic Forrest said...

Kathy, I'm delighted to have introduced you to Desk Set, a brilliant classic film. You will love it.

I'm inspired to keep digging for more fun things. This class promises to be a really good one.

secret agent woman said...

Yep, I snickered.

But sounds like the Unitarian church handled it better than the Catholic church has dealt with their pedophiles.

lisleman said...

thanks for this lesson - maybe there was some underlying promotion of this church group in his novels.
success is a combination of many different things including just random luck. Maybe more important than the keys to success is what you do with the success. Plenty of lottery winners becoming losers stories out there.

Jason said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Bee said...

I'm sorry to hear that Horatio Alger's story has a dark side. It certainly puts a different spin on the idea of a helping hand. (Did Nixon really use that campaign slogan? NO WAY!)

We studied Horatio Alger's work in a Children's Literature class that I once took. The professor's name was Dick.

Fantastic Forrest said...

Secret Agent Woman - Indeed.

lisleman - well said. I am interested, though, in exploring whether the Alger stories are myths that people cling to in hope of a better life, but their "Prince Charming" never appears to rescue them...

Bee - WAY. There have been some damned wacky political slogans, but that's my fave.

So I assume Dick the professor never shared the "back story" of Alger with the class? Was he lickable?

Barry said...

Alright, I'm am both stunned and appalled by this.

From now on the term "a Horatio Alger Story" will take on a whole new meaning.