Horatio Alger's ideas and ideal about the American Dream was drafted at a time when social scientists were discussing the survival of the fittest. Nonetheless, the story of Ragged Dick shows that Alger was just as concerned about social responsibility and stewardship. Ragged Sick was Alger’s most famous work at the time and the author's name has since become synonymous with moral values in the United States, especially as they pertain to politics. Alger wrote about one hundred novels and stories for juveniles, which were originally published between the 1850s and 1900. Horatio Alger is now possibly better known than his writing because the philosophical ideal behind his prose is associated with rags-to-riches storylines and self-help formulas alike. He has been called one of the most influential writers in America. In Ragged Dick, Alger’s hero demonstrates that fortitude and self-reliance are enough to bring anyone in American upward mobility and economic opportunity. By being honest and working hard, even the lowliest shoeshine boy can beat the odds and challenge entrenched social hierarchies. Carol Nackenoff writes, “Horatio Alger is shorthand for someone who has risen through the ranks — the self-made man, against the odds. The prevailing form of this discourse in the United States concerns strong-willed, courageous individuals who struggle against the odds and triumph rather than engage in collective struggle or collective action” (3).
People like Dick earn great rewards by doing the right thing. In Horatio Alger’s perspective, capitalism is a good thing when approached handled with honesty and integrity. The self-made man has become a staple of American idealism as well as modern day American conservatism (Nackenoff 4). Alger’s hero, Dick earns himself a good job by being a good person. He was already hard working, set on self-improvement, and a good friend. When he sees a child fall overboard, he leaps in and saves the boy. The boy’s father had been screaming for help, “"My child!" he exclaimed in anguish,—"who will save my child? A thousand— ten thousand dollars to anyone who will save him!” (Alger 299). However, Dick doesn’t need a reward for doing the right thing. Moreover, he certainly doesn’t want charity. In the end, the grateful father, gives young Dick a counting house job allowing Dick to put his self-improvement to good use. The story of the American Dream and American ideal as characterized by Ragged Dick is also a story about a young man’s rite of passage (Nackenoff 10). Readers can tell that Dick is going to grow up to be a noble man, one who is independent and who has gotten ahead in the world by hard work and honesty. He rises from precarious beginnings, an orphan who lives in the street. Things could have gone very badly for Dick; he could have turned to crime. However, in the end he triumphs over the odds. The message Alger wanted to convey to the youths reading his stories was that this was everyone’s struggle, “not merely that of Ragged Dick and his acquaintances but of the nation undergoing transition. For this is an allegory of the Republic (Nackenoff 11).
When Ragged Dick was created, urban crime was a major problem as were the number of parentless wayward youths roaming the city streets. These street urchins were alternatively discussed in scholarly type studies and by reformers as lowbrow; dirty, noisy, and potentially dangerous. These youths were rehabilitated by Horatio Alger, whose work reached out to young people to explain that through hard work and honesty they could make good. Alger’s message about self-improvement was roundly supported by the middle classes and especially by Christian reformers because it was, after all, their message too (Baxter 12). Young Dick is lowly boot-black, but he saves his money and works hard at his job with an aim toward self-improvement. Dick had visions of respectability, “He had four dollars left in his pocket-book; but this he had previously determined not to touch. In fact he had formed the ambitious design of starting an account at a savings' bank, in order to have something to fall back upon in case of sickness or any other emergency, or at any rate as a reserve fund to expend in clothing or other necessary articles when he required them” (Alger 152). The author portrays Dick, not as a disgruntled show shine boy, but as a boy with a profession who must plan for the future. Conceptions and ideals about the American Dream were related to symbols of achievement such as education, savings, and eventually owning a home. The story of Ragged Dick mirrored this ideal. The story taught readers that the best way to attain success was via a strong work ethic. For many, America was the worldwide symbol for democracy, and as such, the people of the country celebrated their freedom to be successful. Success was left up to individual initiative.
Social class and ethnicity were not perceived as obstacles in the pursuit of the American Dream. Horatio Alger endorsed this ideal in his work, and that work impressed the nation’s nineteenth century readers (Madriaga 87). Alger emphasized good Christian virtues like honesty and a strong work ethic. The reason that Dick is able to go from rags to riches, and thus he realizes the American Dream, in part due to his honesty and decency. Dick sticks to his personal code of honor despite the fact that other orphan boys have been tempted to go wrong. Dick gives every indication that he will grow up to be a man’s-man, and that he will always be honest, “Oh, I'm a rough customer!” said Dick. “But I wouldn't steal. It's mean” (Alger 9). Dicks honor stands in juxtaposition to others who are more sophisticated. The message is that his basic goodness and fair dealing along with his compassion for his fellow man leads to his success. The book Ragged Dick is in essence a book about personal success and important life lessons. Dick raises himself up in American through his hard work and basic goodness. The sky is the limit in America, is the message delivered at one point by Mr. Whitney assures Dick that he can achieve whatever he sets out to achieve, “Save your money, my lad, buy books, and determine to be somebody, and you may yet fill an honorable position” (Alger 134 ). Honesty and hard work have always been old-fashioned virtues. They are the basis for many tales like Alger’s and have been retold in many different ways. The American ideal and the American Dream can be achieved by anyone who is willing to do their best. Ragged Dick’s message is that this achieving success in the United States is really quite simple.
Alger, Horatio. Ragged Dick: Street Life in New York with the Boot-Blacks. Auckland, NZL: The Floating Press, 2009. Baxter, Kent. Modern Age: Turn-of-the-Century American Culture and the Invention of Adolescence. Tuscaloosa, AL, USA: University of Alabama Press, 2011. Madriaga, Manuel. "Why American Nationalism Should Never Be Considered Postnationalist." National Identities 12.1 (2010): 81-94. Nackenoff, Carol. Fictional Republic: Horatio Alger and American Political Discourse. Cary, NC, USA: Oxford University Press, USA, 1994.