Alger everywhere Alger ‘myth’ widely disseminated across US culture See Scharnhorst, ‘Demythologizing Alger’ and other essays in Norton Ragged Dick
1870s-90s Alger a very popular writer for children (though nothing sold as well as Ragged Dick) Celebrated as ‘an inspiring, if misguided moralist’ Not taken very seriously Satirised – Stephen Crane (in Norton)…
Heyday early 20c and 1920s Early 20c –Seen as crystallising something specifically American –‘uplift’: moral heroism + economic success –This based on pirated, rehashed editions (40 difft publishers) 1920s –Myth intensified but Alger not read –Books out of print
1930s to present Lost prestige Great Depression (1930s) made Alger books seem –fatuous, very dated –even direct lies and ideological mystifications Critique especially from women writers, people of colour, and on the left –Nathanael West, A Cool Million (1934) –Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn (1938) –Ann Petry, The Street (1946) –Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952) –Amiri Baraka, ‘The Death of Horatio Alger’ (1967) in Norton ed –Hunter S Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972) –Michael Moore, ‘Horatio Alger Must Die’ chapter in Dude, Where’s My Country? (2003)
Writing Back to Alger: Ann Petry, The Street (1946) Promise of Harlem as ‘black city’ is betrayed Streets of Harlem are ‘the north’s lynch mobs’ ‘the white world…thrust black people into a walled enclosure from which there is no escape’
Writing Back to Alger: Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952) Black boy goes to southern college, where they preach ‘the black rite of Horatio Alger’ Escapes to the urban north –“New York!” he said. “That’s not a place, it’s a dream. When I was your age it was Chicago. Now all the little black boys run away to New York. Out of the fire into the melting pot…” Like Petry, disillusioned by Harlem, and also by white mainstream and left-radical culture –“that lie that success was a rising upwards. What a crummy lie they kept us dominated us by.”
Writing Back to Alger: Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn (1938) I saw the Horatio Alger hero, the dream of a sick American, mounting higher and higher, first messenger, then operator, then manager, then chief, then superintendent, then vice-president, then president, then trust magnate, then beer baron, then Lord of all the Americas, the money god, the god of gods, the clay of clay, nullity on high, zero with ninety-seven thousand decimals fore and aft. You shits, I said to myself, I will give you the picture of twelve little men, zeros without decimals, ciphers, digits, the twelve uncrushable worms who are hollowing out the base of your rotten edifice. I will give you Horatio Alger as he looks the day after the Apocalypse, when all the stink has cleared away.
Why such hostility? Petry, Ellison, Baraka –Alger crystallises dominant American culture which overtly embraces ideology of freedom and opportunity, but is actually racist, sexist etc. –Fictions about the internalisation of the Alger myth Questions of Ragged Dick –To what extent is Alger’s work itself discriminatory in these ways? –Can it still be inspiring? Is this a good thing?
Lies, lies, lies ‘Horatio Alger Must Die’ –Chapter 7 of Michael Moore, Dude, Where’s My Country (2003)
Why such hostility? Miller –Alger gives a moral dimension to making money; success is not selfish but ethically good Legitimates US capitalism Cf Wall St (1989): ‘greed is good’
Child rescue Batman Returns (1992)Batman Returns –Replays child rescue scene –Parody?
Why such hostility? But for Miller there’s a 2 nd reason Not only that Alger gives moral dimension to capitalism But also pretends that the destabilising effects of the city on identity can easily be resisted –“One can feel his way about, take bearings, observe passing phenomena; one can even feel at home…“But there is no taking root.” Miller, Tropic of Capricorn
Gets to the heart of Alger Alger offered readers a sense of ‘taking root’ in the city. But how? From 1970s, critics have uncovered complexity in Alger –Sublimated sexuality –Performance –‘beneath [Alger’s] paeans to manly vigour…[there is] a lust for effeminate indulgence; beneath his celebrations of self-reliance, a craving to be taken care of and a yearning to surrender the terrible burden of independence.’ (Zuckerman, qted in Norton RD, p. 211)
Alger in a nutshell City destabilises identity, threatens the self –All sorts of tricks, counterfeiting, etc. –Clothes (Washington, Napoleon…) –Dick as social climber ‘putting on airs’ –Doesn’t Mickey McGuire have a point? –So is capitalism: multiple references to Erie railroad and watered stock (recent financial collapse; cons) But identity ultimately given by a stable, ethical core to the self, visible to those who take the care to look properly See first chapter.
It’s all in the gaze Dick is “somehow attractive” despite his “dirt and rags” and it “was easy to see that if he had been clean and well dressed he would have been decidedly good- looking.” In comparison to other street-boys, “Dick had a frank, straight- forward manner that made him a favorite.”
Alger’s double-dealing Dick is involved in exactly the kinds of counterfeiting, pretending, faking, that Alger seems to be trying to negotiate in the city –Always acting, telling tall stories, witty, etc etc. (This is in many ways what attracts the satire & anger of Miller, West et al.) Does he change? –Stops going to ‘low’ entertainment: P T Barnum; Old Bowery theatre; but… Dick starts saving – becomes a ‘capitalist’ (p.62) and another reminder of Erie Railroad Continually acting; changes of name: Ragged Dick >Dick Hunter >Richard Hunter, Esq ‘a young gentleman on his way to fame and fortune’ (final page)
How does Alger square this? “Dick had a frank, straight-forward manner that made him a favorite.” Could be read as suggesting homoerotics –Alger’s ‘unnatural acts’ with young boys –City as space for (homo) sexual encounters, sometimes cross class. But Alger’s success in mainstream US is due to sublimation of homoerotic into homosocial –see Moon essay in Norton RD; Sedgwick, Between Men, and Davies, ‘Dreiser and the City’ (on LN) The older men –Mr Grayson, Mr Whitney, Mr Rockwell
So? Dick performs his identity for these older men, who validate him –it “was easy to see that if he had been clean and well dressed he would have been decidedly good-looking.” Instability is contained by gaze of (self) recognition Dick is white, male, Anglo….just like his patrons. Who do they see when they look at him? Themselves So Dick’s social mobility upward is made to appear natural… In Alger, urban spectacle and social mobility are congruent with stable selfhood….for some.
Bad monster, good monster "I felt like a monster reincarnation of Horatio Alger... a Man on the Move, and just sick enough to be totally confident." –Final words of Hunter S Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (1972)