On January 13, 1832, Horatio Alger, Jr. was born in Chelsea (now Revere), Massachusetts. His father, Reverend Horatio Alger, was a Unitarian minister at the First Congregational Church and Society at Chelsea. Alger's mother, Olive (Fenno) Alger, was the daughter of a wealthy merchant and landowner.
Surprisingly, given his future career as writer, Alger did not learn the alphabet until the age of six and did not begin his formal education until, by his account, the age of ten. His early education was conducted at home, under the irregular direction of his father, and consisted of algebra and Latin, this despite his obvious deficiency in English. Because Alger did not attend school and his father was preoccupied with church business, Alger had a great deal of free-time. This time was filled with reading "whatever came in my way," and included both educational and entertaining works.
In December of 1844, Alger's parents moved to Marlborough, a town situated in the rolling hills between Boston and Worcester. Alger attended Gates Academy for the next three years, preparing for college. Alger noted in his Class Book that the tastes of the superintendent, Obadiah Wheelock Albee, "inclined him rather to mathematics and physical sciences than to the classics." Alger believed this balanced his education and forced him to devote more of his time to these subjects. Alger completed his studies at Gates Academy in 1847 at the age of fifteen.
Alger entered Harvard in 1848, paying for his tuition by serving as "President's Freshman," running errands for the president. He also received financial assistance from his father's cousin, Cyrus Alger, a wealthy industrialist. Despite his early deficiencies in a structured education, Alger excelled at Harvard, receiving awards for academic achievement and prizes for his essays. His life at Harvard, however, was not limited to academic pursuits. Alger was active in many extracurricular activities, including membership in the Psi Upsilon fraternity. Alger graduated from Harvard in 1852 and reflected that "No period of my life has been one of such unmixed happiness as the four years which have been spent within college walls."
For the next seven years, Alger's life was anything but stable. He entered the Harvard Divinity School in September of 1853, but soon after withdrew to take a position as assistant editor for the Boston Daily Advertiser. He soon left the Daily Advertiser and took on several successive positions including, teacher, principal, private tutor, and writer. During this time, two of Alger's writings appeared in hardcover: Bertha's Christmas Vision (1856), a volume of collected works that had previously appeard in other sources, and Nothing To Do (1857), a satirical poem. These were published as were many of his stories and poems in the monthlies and weeklies. Despite his growing prominence as a writer and his income from teaching, it appears that Alger was unable to make a satisfactory living.
In 1857, Alger re-entered the Harvard Divinity School to prepare for the ministry. On July 17, 1860, Alger graduated from the Divinity School and shortly thereafter, took his first ministerial assignment in Chicopee, Massachusetts. He began making plans for a grand tour of Europe and Great Britain, and made arrangements to write articles for the New York Sun to help defray expenses.
Alger left New York in September of 1860 en route to Liverpool, England on the first leg of his grand tour of Europe. He remained there for nearly a year and submitted travel narratives to the New York Sun during his stay. Upon returning to the United States, he continued writing, but was increasingly frustrated by the lack of response to his work and the lack of pay. He decided that he would write for children and contacted a publisher, A. K. Loring, to detail the plot of a book he had in mind. Loring encouraged him to submit a manuscript, which he did: Frank's Campaign. Loring published Frank's Campaign at about the same time that Alger accepted a ministerial position at the First Unitarian Church and Society of Brewster, Massachusetts in November of 1864. In 1865, while satisfactorily fulfilling his duties as minister, Alger began submitting stories for publication in Student and Schoolmate. He completed another novel late that year entitled, Paul Prescott's Charge, which like Frank's Campaign, received favorable reviews. Alger's life was about to change dramatically.
In January of 1866, an investigative committee was formed in Alger's parish in response to a rumor that he had molested a boy. The committee came to the conclusion that Alger was indeed guilty of molesting at least two boys. Alger was brought before the committee and charged with pedophilia, which he did not deny. Instead, he resigned his post and left town for the protective home of his parents. Shortly thereafter, Alger moved to New York City to embark on a full-time writing career.
Alger had three more books published in 1866: Timothy Crump's Ward; or, the New Year's Loan and What Came of it, Charlie Codman's Cruise, both of which were rewrites based on earlier serials he had written, and Helen Ford. All three novels were well received by reviewers, but sales were disappointing, as were his earnings.
Early in 1867, Alger supplied a story to Student and Schoolmate entitled Ragged Dick; or, Street Life in New York. The tale centers around the life of a young bootblack, culled from Alger's interest in the lives of the "street Arabs," or boys who lived on the streets of New York. Alger had plenty of experience from which to draw: Since his arrival in New York, Alger visited places frequented by street boys, including the Newsboys' Lodging House operated by the Children's Aid Society. The Newsboys' Lodging House operated from a loft above the New York Sun and provided a place for street boys, and later girls, to sleep and receive a warm meal. Alger became an advocate for these homeless children and routinely appealed to his readers for support of the institution.
Ragged Dick was so popular and well received by the public that Student and Schoolmate signed Alger on as a regular contributor to the magazine. Later that same year, Loring published the story, slightly expanded, and had very favorable sales. Alger signed with Loring to write five additional novels as part of a "Ragged Dick Series." The additional five novels, published between 1868 and 1870 are: Fame and Fortune (1868), Mark the Match Boy (1869), Rough and Ready (1869), Ben the Luggage Boy (1870), Rufus and Rose (1870). None of the subsequent novels attained the acclaim or appeal that Ragged Dick received.
Alger continued writing at a frenzied pace, regularly contributing to such story papers and magazines as Ballou's, Gleason's, Harper's, New York Weekly, Student and Schoolmate, and Young Israel. In addition, over the next few years, Alger signed with Loring to write additional novels that would appear under a series title, such as the "Luck and Pluck Series," "Tattered Tom Series," and the "Brave and Bold Series."
Despite his success at writing for children, Alger wanted to gain literary fame by writing material that would appeal to a mature audience. This desire was never fully realized. He did have some limited successes through the publication of a collection of poetry, entitled Grand'ther Baldwin's Thanksgiving (1875) and his novel, The New Schoolma'am, or A Summer in North Sparta (1877). Both of these publications received good reviews and were well received by the public. He actually wrote another adult fiction piece entitled Mabel Parker, but Alger delayed publishment because of a sales slump in the book trade. It was not published until after Alger's death, when Edward Stratemeyer, with minor changes, published it under Alger's name and with the title Jerry, the Backwoods Boy (1904). The manuscript remained in the Street and Smith archives at the Arents Research Library on the Syracuse University campus until it was published, in its original form, in 1986 by Gary Scharnhorst under the Archon Books imprint.
Following the death of President James Garfield in 1881, John R. Anderson suggested to Alger that he should write a biography of the late president, the audience for which would be children. Alger complied, drawing information from other biographies and newsclippings, and within 14 days submitted a manuscript for publication. From Canal Boy to President received good reviews and sold very well, encouraging him to write an additional two biographies for children: From Farm Boy to Senator (Daniel Webster) (1882) and Abraham Lincoln, the Backwoods Boy (1883).
Until his health failed in 1895 and he was forced to retire, Alger poured out 537 novels and short stories (including variant titles), 94 poems, and 27 articles. Alger's stories appeared in a variety of formats, including hard-cover books, serial publications (magazines and story papers), and pamphlets. In addition to publishing under his own name, it is known that many of Alger's works were published using pseudonyms. It is likely, therefore, that many of Alger's stories are lost and the true number may never be known. Over the years, his writing came increasingly under attack by critics for being too sensationalistic, unbelievable, and predictable. Other critics chided Alger for his overuse of the same formula, which he changed very little over the course of his writing career. On July 18, 1899, at the age of 67, Alger passed away at his sister's home in Natick, Massachusetts. His stories continued to be popular until the 1920s, when most publishers stopped issuing them.
Alger is often credited with inventing the "strive and succeed" spirit that inspired boys to work hard and advance themselves to attain the American Dream. This belief is still evident today in the Horatio Alger Society's "Strive and Succeed" award which is given annually to a student who demonstrates the "strive and succeed" spirit that permeates Alger's writing and the Horatio Alger Association's "Horatio Alger Award," given annually to Americans who "demonstrate individual initiative and a commitment to excellenceas exemplified by remarkable achievements accomplished through honesty, hard work, self-reliance, and perseverance." Many Americans still associate Alger's name with success through honesty, industry, and independence.
- Mark A. Williams