Horatio Alger, Jr.

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Horatio Alger, Jr. (January 13, 1832 – July 18, 1899) was a prolific 19th-century American author, best known for his many formulaic juvenile novels about impoverished boys and their rise from humble backgrounds to lives of respectable middle-class security and comfort through hard work, determination, courage, and honesty. He initially wrote and published for adults, but a friendship with boys' author William Taylor Adams led him to writing for the young. He published for years in Adams's Student and Schoolmate, a boys' magazine of moral writings. His lifelong theme of "rags to respectability" had a profound impact on America in the Gilded Age. His works gained even greater popularity following his death, but gradually lost reader interest in the 1920s.

Born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, Alger entered Harvard College at age sixteen and became a professional writer at seventeen with the sale of a few literary pieces to a Boston magazine. He worked briefly as an assistant editor for a Boston magazine before teaching in New England boys' schools for a few years. He graduated from Harvard Divinity School in 1860, wrote in support of the Union cause during the American Civil War, and accepted a ministerial post with a Unitarian church in Brewster, Massachusetts in 1864. He left the church in 1866 following an internal investigation regarding sexual misconduct allegations involving two teenage boys of the parish. He denied nothing and relocated to New York City. In 1864 he published Frank's Campaign, his first boys' book, and in 1865 his second boys' book Paul Prescott's Charge.

He continued to write and published a third boys' book Charlie Codman's Cruise. He found his literary niche in 1866 with his fourth boys' book Ragged Dick, the story of a poor bootblack's rise to middle-class respectability. His many boys' books that followed were essentially variations on Ragged Dick and featured a series of stock characters – the valiant youth, the noble mysterious stranger, the snobbish youth, and the evil squire. In the 1870s Alger took a trip to California to gather material for future books but the trip had little influence on his writing; he remained firmly fixed in his "rags to respectability" formula. The Puritan ethic had loosened its grip on America during these years, and Alger's moral tone coarsened. Violence, murder, and other sensational themes entered his works; public librarians questioned whether his books should be made available to the young. He published about 100 boys' books and died in 1899. A biography that eventually proved to be a hoax was published in 1928 and held great sway for many years. Since 1947, the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans has bestowed awards and scholarships on the deserving, and in 1982 Alger's works inspired a musical comedy called Shine!. One modern scholar has described his work as a male Cinderella myth noting similarities with the classic fairy tale.


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