Tuesday, March 16, 2010

On "Ragged Dick" by Horatio Alger ****

One hears about Horatio Alger stories in school, but I don't know of anyone who has actually read one. Going into a stint of reading in American literature from 1870 to 1920, especially focused on realism and naturalism, I decided to also include a couple of pieces of popular literature from the period as well in order to get a feel for how realism compares.

Ragged Dick is the name of the book's hero. He's a shoeshine boy (a boot-black, as the novel calls such). At the start, he's an honest chap who likes a good joke and who spends all of his earnings on shows and drinks each night. At some point, he meets with a better-educated young man, and this man instills in Dick a desire to make better of himself. Rather than spend his earnings, he should save them. Then he could rent a room, have nicer clothes, and get an education. And so that's what Dick does, and his fortunes, with minor setbacks, keep getting better and better.

The moral is clear. Get an education and work hard (and be generous with others) and you'll make a success of yourself. Although true in theory and generally true in life, things rarely seem to come as easily, or with as little cost, as they do to Dick. The cynical part of me kept wanting to see Dick fall into a real hole through no fault of his own and truly struggle (as would happen in a naturalist novel), even if he comes out better in the end.

Early in the story, Dick agrees to make change for a man. The clerk in the store where he goes claims that the bill is counterfeit. Now Dick is out of his earnings and in danger of arrest. Here are the makings for a tragic novel and a very interesting plot. But this is Alger's world, where virtue is always rewarded and almost always immediately. As a result, Dick's story becomes more like a picaresque series of episodes than a heavily plotted novel. Dick goes outside and gathers the man who gave him the bill; the man claims the bill wasn't fake; the owner of the store comes out; the clerk gives in and hands the bill over, and then he's fired for attempting to jilt a customer out of money. Honesty prevails, in a city, known in the novel for its array of swindlers.

Yet, despite the episodic nature of the story, the novel is a fun read that rather pulls you in and along. Maybe it's the prospect of seeing Dick rise in the world that does it, or maybe it's that despite the rather corny nature of the whole work, one actually ends up liking Dick and caring for him and being glad when things turn his way.

The text is available for free here, and the audio version here.


Courtney said...

Thanks for this interesting review. I've never read Alger myself. And it sounds like I wouldn't much care for his work. But I'm glad to have a better sense of what a Horatio Alger story is all about.

Short Story Reader said...

Someone sent to me a link regarding various myths that are propagated about Horatio Alger. Interested readers might check it out here: http://www.bachelorsdegreeonline.com/blog/2012/11-myths-about-horatio-alger-every-american-should-know/.