High culture has been extolled as having the ability of changing or elevating the fortunes of the poor, the working people and the immigrants in the United States. Several elite efforts have been employed and urged in this quest to help the poor and the immigrants get incorporated into the social unit. This essay examines how Levine’s elite efforts to use high culture to aid the cause of the poor and the immigrants plays out in the novel Ragged Dick by Horatio Alger.
We begin from the position that the city of New York in the 19th century was a dangerous and awful place for those who lived in it, more so the poor. There were many neglected children at that time who slept in the cold and most of the children wore ragged clothes, hence the name “Ragged Dick”. These poor children would engage in several activities during the day in order to earn a living through shoe shining, selling newspapers and hawking matches. Their position was exacerbated by reckless abandon on the part of the authorities who did little to improve their situation and a perfect illustration of this is the street urchin who was represented by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, upon being found naked in the streets. Before venturing into a discussion of how these elite efforts of high culture and their ability to transform the fortunes of the working poor and the immigrants as exemplified in the novel, a background of the whole novel is imperative. The story of the Ragged Dick as authored by Horatio Alger shows Dick spending his days shining the boots of businessmen and watching some cheap plays at the Old Bowetry theatre whenever he spared some coins from the day’s work. We are also able to know that Dick’s parents are not available with his mother having died at three and his father having gone to sea. After getting an unexpected breakthrough in life, Dick then rents a room which to him seems luxurious, much to his unbelief. He also lets in another boy named Henry Fosdick to share his room in return for tutelage. This symbiotic relationship where Fosdick was able to get a roof over his head and Dick obtained some education was a perfect combination for both. It is through the story of Ragged Dick that Horatio Alger lays bare the elite efforts of high culture at improving the state of the poor, the working people and the immigrants.
One of the ways in which these elite efforts as described by Levine of using high culture to elevate the position of the poor plays out in the novel, Ragged Dick is that in whatever that a person does, they need to perform at their best. It is the case that life behooves man to do his best in whatever field even if they do not like whatever they are doing. The Ragged Dick story as told by Horatio Alger is a perfect example of this position. At the beginning, we see Dick sleeping out in the cold as a boot-black. However, we are able to see that he is able to save some money that he got from his job as a shoe-shine and opened a bank account, meet people of a higher class and improve in several areas of his life. Another way in which the Levine’s notions of elite efforts of high culture in the elevation of the poor plays out in the Ragged Dick are where the importance of reading or studying is given gainsaid. In the novel, Dock meets the son of a wealthy man who he takes to different parts of the city. It is then that the wealthy man tells Dick that in the country, poverty was no bar to achieving and tells him of his own story whether he rose from a printer apprentice to a successful businessman. The wealthy man, who appears in the story as a Mr. Whitney, tells Dick that there was a key thing he took away with him that was more valuable than money, while he was working at the printing office. Upon further inquiry, the wealthy man told Dick that he had invested heavily on studying which equipped him with knowledge that was beneficial to him in several ways.
Further, another way in which the elite efforts of high culture plays out in the novel is through the emphasis on saving while being generous. Dick opens a bank account with an unexpected sum of five dollars that he receives. This builds in him a great sense of pride as well as security as he stops living from hand to mouth. While he is happy at having improved his life through savings, his generosity is still evident as he shares his room with another boy named Henry Fosdick. In addition, he buys Fosdick a suit if suitable clothes after indicating that he wanted an office job. Dick also helps another boy whose mother is sick. Similarly, we see an illustration of these efforts where there it is urged that cheating or stealing is bad. Despite the intensity of temptations and the dire situation of Dick, we see a personal code attached to him, namely that of stealing is mean. Indeed, it is his fair play and honor of other people’s belongings which appears almost naïve that prove to be the source of his success. Dick, being a boy who at first lives from day to day without much hope, is a remarkable feat that he values honesty and seeks to do the right thing. True to this, though honesty may seem old-fashioned in this world and to the crowd, it is actually the basis of all success that endures. Another exemplification of the efforts of using high culture to uplift the lives of the poor is where it is impressed upon the reader that one needs to make their own luck. The big break for the Ragged Dick comes as he is on a ferry crossing to Brooklyn with his friend Henry Fosdick. It is there that Dick sees a child falling over to the other side and plunging into the water. It is then that Dick wastes no time and jumps into the water thus saving the child by pulling it to safety. The father of the child, who had then panicked as he never knew how to swim, is amazed at the helping hand given by Dick, who he promises any reward. We then learn that he is later rewarded with a job at a counting house by the father of the child where he is paid $ 10 a week, a salary that was several times higher than his current wage. However, it need be set out that Dick’s case was not all luck and no effort. On the contrary, it is his selflessness that was enabled him get the good fortune in terms of the job. This was coupled with his diligence in self-education where he strived to better his skills which in turn placed him in a position where he could be hired without the slightest hint of charity. We may the state that luck only happens to persons who increase their chances of its occurrence.
Horatio Alger himself decried the habit of drinking and smoking stating that the same was not dignified and should be avoided. He considered drinking as an enemy of development of human beings as it ate away at the savings of a person since one could blow all his money in a single night on the grog. Further, drinking has the added effect of acting as an enemy to hard work ad industry as the hangover that result hampers the working of the particular person. It is the case that drinking saps a human being’s drive, erodes good character and also pickles the independent mind of a person. The idea of success or improving the lives of the poor and the working people is shown as resulting from a great sense of social responsibility and stewardship. In addition, Alger shows that the making of money should not be an end in itself. Rather, the same fortune need be ploughed back into the society to those in need. In particular, this principle plays out in the novel by Horatio Alger where we notice Dick giving to those in needs through his selfless endeavors.
Alger, Horatio Jr,, and Hildegard Hoeller. Ragged Dick, or Street Life in New York with Boot Blacks. New York: W.W Norton and Company, 2008.
Bercovitch, Sacvan. The Cambridge History of American Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Scharnhorst, Gary. Horatio Alger, Jr. Twayne's United States Authors Series. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 2007.