Horatio Alger, Jr. (January 13, 1832 - July 18, 1899) was a 19th-century American author, a leading proponent of Social Darwinism during the Gilded Age (1865-1900), who wrote over 130 dime novels, describing how down-and-out boys were able to achieve the American dream of wealth and success through hard work, courage, determination, and concern for others.
Poorly written and repetitive, the novels declined in popularity as Alger's target audience grew more sophisticated. Nevertheless, at the time of their writing they were bestsellers, and Alger's books actually rivaled those of Mark Twain in popularity. As the American dream took shape, Alger gave hope for a brighter future to millions of young men who were then living on the brink of society.
Alger was born in Revere, Massachusetts to a stern Unitarian minister who wanted his son to follow him into the clergy. He attended Harvard where he studied under Henry Wadsworth Longfellow with the intention of one day becoming a poet. After graduation he found work as a journalist and schoolteacher. Rejected by the Union Army because of his asthma, he took a tour of Europe where he finally decided to pursue the ministry. He took a position in Cape Cod but left for New York City rather suddenly in 1866, ostensibly to pursue a career in writing. Church records uncovered after Alger's death indicate that he was quietly dismissed for having sexual relations with several boys in his parish.
The move to New York was a turning point in Alger's career. He was immediately drawn into the work of impoverished young bootblacks, newspaper boys, and peddlers, and even took a young Chinese immigrant named Sam into his home as a ward (Sam was killed in a carriage accident a few years later). It was this world, coupled with the austere values that Alger received at home, which formed the basis of the first novel in his Ragged Dick series (1867). The book was an immediate success, spurring a vast collection of sequels and similar novels, including Luck and Pluck (1869) and Tattered Tom (1871), all with the same theme: the rise from rags to riches. In fact, the theme became synonymous with Alger.
Essentially, all of Alger's novels are the same: a young boy struggles through hard work to escape poverty. Critics, however, are quick to point out that it is not the hard work itself that rescues the boy from his fate, but rather some extraordinary act of bravery or honesty, which brings him into contact with a wealthy elder gentleman, who takes the boy in as a ward. The boy might return a large sum of money that was lost or rescue someone from an overturned carriage, bringing the boy—and his plight—to the attention of some wealthy individual. It has been suggested that this reflects Alger's own patronizing attitude to the boys he tried to help.
Despite his remarkable literary output, Alger never became rich from his writing. He gave most of his money to homeless boys and in some instances was actually conned from his earnings by the boys he tried to help. Nevertheless, by the time he died in 1899, his books could be found in virtually every home and library in America. His books may no longer be as popular today as they once were, but the moral messages they relayed were an important factor in the development of the American dream in the 20th century.
At the time of his death, Alger was living with his sister Augusta. She destroyed all of his personal papers, hoping to avoid scandal in the rigid atmosphere of the Victorian Era.
Since 1947, the Horatio Alger Association has bestowed an annual award on "outstanding individuals in our society who have succeeded in the face of adversity" and scholarships "to encourage young people to pursue their dreams with determination and perseverance".