Horatio Alger is a writer people talk about as though they’ve read him without ever actually reading him. I am guilty of this. We think we know what a Horatio Alger story” is, but few of us have first hand experience. So I picked up a copy of Ragged Dick or Street Life in New York with the Boot Blacks at a used book store and gave it a go. One should know what one is talking about whenever possible.
Ragged Dick was exactly what I expected a Horatio Alger story to be, except when it was more than I expected. The story is the first in Alger’s Richard Hunter series. We are introduced to Ragged Dick, as he is known, a young boot black, or shoe-shine boy with spunk to spare. Dick is full of life, upbeat in his outlook, cheery to a fault. He faces life on his own, on the streets of mid-eighteenth century New York City with a level of pluck and good-hearted determination that would annoy any modern reader if he weren’t so darn likable. The lad is hard to resist, very hard.
As the story opens, Dick is “hired” to show a shopkeeper’s young son the city. Frank is in town visiting from school during his vacation and has not had a chance to see the sights. Dick takes him on a tour of New York that ends up changing both boys. Frank sees how desperate the lives of those less fortunate than he is are, while Dick sees a new world of opportunities if he’ll only apply himself, save his money, and get an education. At the end of the day, Frank goes back to school and Dick begins to improve his life.
Ragged Dick is a Horatio Alger story, so there’s never any doubt about the ending. Dick befriends another boot-black. Henry, aged 12, had an education before his father died so each night he gives Dick lessons in exchange for the support Dick gives young Henry who has not fared very well on the streets of New York. The two work in tandem, save their money, move off of the streets into a shabby apartment, open a bank account, save more money, get better jobs as shop clerks and move into a decent apartment at the end of the novel. Just what one would expect in a Horatio Alger story.
What’s unexpected in Ragged Dick, at least for me, is just how unimpressive Dick’s ambitions are. This is not a rags to riches story. Instead, it’s a rags to respectability story. Dick wants not to be rich, though he’d happy take riches if they came his way. He wants to be a respectable man, like those whose shoes he shines each day. What’s also unexpected in Ragged Dick is the grand tour of New York City the opening chapters offer. We see New York City from the underbelly of the Bowery district to the hotels of uptown high society, along with trolley cars, afternoon tea, cheap theatricals and high class shops. Dick’s insider status makes him a wonderful tour guide, a diminutive raconteur.
Ragged Dick is Horatio Alger’s only best selling novel. He went on to write many more, including several more volumes in Richard Hunter’s story, but he never became more than an author of tales for boys. That said, he did become a household word, and that should count for something.
While it’s been several years since I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., I still remember how much fun it was. Horatio Alger is a very entertaining writer. But I find myself feeling a bit critical of his place in creating the American mythos. I think it’s fair to say that he played a large part in developing this idea that all you need to be a success in America is plenty of spunk. Looking at the state of the country these days, especially at the state of so many Americans, it’s clear that what’s really needed to succeed in America is a lot more than simple spunk. I think we learned the wrong lesson from Horatio Alger. What we should have learned is that we should help each other, they Richard and Henry do and the way key people Richard meets help him. If you want to climb the social ladder, you’re going to need some help along the way.