Horatio Alger, Jr.


  1. Who was Horatio Alger?

Horatio Alger, Jr. was an American author (1832-1899).  Alger produced the one of the first boys’ adventure series.  Alger published over 118 novels in book form.  Another 280 novels were produced in magazines along with more than five hundred short stories.  His young heroes succeed through a mixture of pluck and luck.  They are lucky, in part, because they deserve to be lucky.  A given hero may appear in several books, e.g., “Ragged Dick,” but the books do not have a common set of characters.  Regardless of their names, the heroes are remarkably similar.  Horatio Alger, Jr. was the oldest of five children of a debt-ridden

New England, Unitarian minister.  He was very frail.  He was under weight and undersized, suffered from bronchial asthma, and near sightedness. Because of his poor health, the family deferred his introduction to the alphabet and reading until he was six years old.   He started formal school at age 10 and achieved Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard.  He was ranked eighth in a class of 89.  He volunteered for the union army three times and was rejected three times because of his asthma and small size (just over five feet and about 120 pounds). Horatio Alger, Jr. taught school or tutored school children for a good part of his life.  His most famous student is Benjamin Cardozo who went on to be a Supreme Court justice.


  1. What has he written?

Horatio Alger wrote mostly juvenile fiction:  short stories, serialized novels, and novels.  He also wrote biography, juvenile biography (James Garfield, Abraham Lincoln, and Daniel Webster), and poetry.  He did someserious writing for adult publications (essays), but he was not nearlyas successful at that.

The Horatio Alger Society includes lists of his publications and their various editions for collectors.  The most comprehensive list of Alger’s publications is Bob Bennett’s_ A Collector’s Guide to the Published Works of Horatio Alger, Jr. (1832 – 1899)_MAD Book Company:  Newark, Delaware, 1999).

Many of the books were sold after Alger’s death and after the copyrights had expired so careful records were not kept.  Printers frequently printed unauthorized editions at the same time they printed authorized editions. The unauthorized editions were sold by the printer with no fee paid to the publisher.


  1. What Alger organizations have sites on the Internet?

Horatio Alger, Jr Resources


Horatio Alger Association (philanthropic organization)


Horatio Alger Educational Programs


Horatio Alger Society (collectors) http://www.horatioalger.com


  1. What pseudonyms did Alger use?

Arthur Hamilton

Arthur Lee Putnam

Carl Cantab

Julian Starr

Charles F. Preston


  1. Why is there so little accurate information about Alger?

Alger’s sister Augusta inherited all of his papers.  She destroyed virtually all of his personal papers.  In the Victorian era, it was not unusual for an author or his/her relatives to purge the personal papers of anything that might be unseemly.  To the Victorian mind, virtually any eccentricity was unseemly.  This bowdlerization occurred to the personal papers of Louisa May Alcott, Sir Richard Francis Burton, Lord Byron,etc.


  1. Why is there so much disinformation about Alger?

In 1928 Herbert Mayes published a fraudulent Alger biography entitled: Alger: A Biography Without a Hero.  Mayes even fabricated a diary for Alger which detailed a life of carousing and womanizing.  The Mayes biography became the basis for the entry in the Dictionary of American Biography.  Mayes did not admit the fraud until 1976. As late as 1963, an Alger biographer with academic credentials, John Tebbel, repeated all of the Mayes fabrications, supposedly after verifying his sources.


  1. What Alger novels are available on the Internet?
  • Struggling Upward
  • Cast Upon the Breakers
  • The Cash Boy
  • Joe the Hotel Boy
  • Paul Prescott’s Charge: A story for boys
  • The Errand Boy: or, How Phil Brent Won Success
  • A Fancy of Hers
  • Driven from Home or Carl Crawford’s Experience
  • Frank’s Campaign or, Farm and Camp
  • Paul the Peddler, or, Fortunes of a Young Street Merchant
  • Phil the Fiddler
  1. What movies been made from his books?

A Disney movie _Newsies_ deals with the 1899 newsboy strike in New York City.  The movie is not based on a Horatio Alger story but it does depict the life of the newsboys that figured in so many Alger stories.  The informal web site of the movie is referenced on the Horatio Alger Resources web site. If any movies have been made from Alger stories, they should have been made between 1900 and 1920 at the peak of his popularity.  They would have been silent movies.  So far none of the FAQ readers have turned up an Horatio Alger silent movie (or talkie).


  1. What are some good Alger biographies? Some bad ones?

Gary Scarnhorst with Jack Bales, _The Lost Life of Horatio Alger, Jr._ (Indiana University Press:  Bloomington, IN, 1985) Many poor biographies are based on the 1928 Mayes book mentioned above.


  1. What is the relationship between Horatio Alger stories and the subsequent The Rover Boys, Tom Swift, Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew Series?

Horatio Alger worked with a younger writer, Edward Stratemeyer,  an editor at Munsey Magazine.  Before his death, Alger’s arranged to have  Stratemeyer finish the works that Alger had in progress. The Alger books “completed” by

Stratemeyer include:

  • Out for Business
  • Falling in with Fortune
  • Nelson, the Newsboy
  • Young Captain Jack
  • Jerry, the Backwoods Boy
  • Lost at Sea
  • From Farm to Fortune
  • The Young Book Agent
  • Randy of the River
  • Joe, the Hotel Boy
  • Ben Logan’s Triumph

Stratemeyer was a prolific author and went on to set up the Stratemeyer Syndicate which was responsible for the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew.  After Stratemeyer’s death, the syndicate operated under the leadership of his daughter Harriet Adams Stratemeyer.


  1. What is the formula for a Horatio Alger story?

An adolescent boy with a rural background sets off to earn his livelihood in an urban setting.  He triumphs over circumstances and temptation and starts advancing in his career.  At some point, he will be betrayed or falsely accused by one of his peers.  Ultimately, the hero will be vindicated.  While pluck and hard work play a role in the success of an Alger hero, there is always an older male who takes on the hero as his protégé.  That mentor plays a critical role in the success of the Alger hero.  The Alger hero never takes revenge on those who mistreated him.  He secures what is rightfully his, but he is never vindictive.  Alger heroes never have romantic interests.  As they leave adolescence, these heroes leave his books except to play the role of mentors for the new generation of Alger heroes.


  1. What libraries / museums have Horatio Alger archives?

Library of Congress Simmons College Archives and Special Collections Northern Illinois University Library

Founders Library at NIU has acquired a comprehensive collection of more than 2,000 books and periodicals by and about Horatio Alger, and the library now is the official repository for the archives and other papers of the Horatio Alger Society. All materials received from the Society will be cataloged and made available to interested parties through computer networks. A complete catalog of Alger’s works will be prepared, and the library will continue to acquire all Alger-related monographs and dissertations, in addition to mounting periodic exhibits of the collections and hosting future conventions of the Society. Stanley Lieberman Memorial Collection of American Juvenile Literature, Princeton University of South Florida Tampa Campus Library A. Frank Smith, Jr. Library Center Special Collections Department – Emory University Popular Culture Library at Bowling Green State    de Grummond Childrens’ Literature Collection at Southern Mississippi.

  1. What does the Horatio Alger “Strive and Succeed” philosophy consist of? Are there contemporary versions of it?

There are several elements in the Horatio Alger “Strive and Succeed” Philosophy:

  • hard work
  • study (informal rather than formal)
  • loyalty to superiors and subordinates
  • abstaining from alcohol
  • frugal living
  • importance of dress and personal grooming
  • personal integrity
  • speaking and writing effectively
  • non-credal religious values (Unitarian)
  • avoidance of violence and revenge
  • speaking the whole truth
  • brotherhood of males (family without a mother)
  • obligation to help and protect the weak and unfortunate.
  • duty to mother and/or sisters
  • courtesy to all
  • accepting the success of others
  • emphasis on a secure home
  • accept assistance of benefactors
  • expectation of own success, acceptance
  • eschew class hatred

The Alger success formula seems very like what one finds in _The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin_.  Alger’s code is less pragmatic and more altruitstic than Poor Richard’s.  Alger’s code imposes significant personal obligations, but it is not at all individualistic. The Alger code does not seem to have much in common with those individuals labeled “Horatio Alger success stories.”  Some modern conservatives object to Alger’s liberal philosophy. W. S. Ross even provides an example of an Alger novel (_Struggling Upward_) with all that pernicious liberalism deleted.


  1. What were the major milestones in Alger’s life?
  • 1832 born January 13, Friday
  • 1833 birth of sister Olive Agusta
  • 1842 enters grade school at age 10
  • 1844 Horatio Alger, Sr has close brush with bankruptcy
  • 1847 passes entrance exam and enters Harvard, nickname “Toodles”
  • 1849 essay “Chivalry” in Boston National Pictorial Review
  • 1852 graduates from Harvard, Phi Beta Kappa, eighth in class of 89
  • 1853 freelance journalist, enters and leaves Harvard Divinity
  • 1854 taught at boys boarding school
  • 1857 re-enters Harvard Divinity, publishing in magazines for tuition
  • 1860 graduates from Harvard Divinity
  • 1861 -1862 supply preacher for Unitarian churches
  • 1863 flunked induction physical, near-sighted, short, asthmatic contributor to Harper’s Magazine, Putnam’s, etc.
  • 1864 Frank’s Campaign
  • 1866 accusation of sexual misconduct with thirteen-year-old and fifteen-year-old males, resigns from the ministry.
  • 1866 Horatio Alger in New York City as journalist his publisher, Joseph H. Allen,a Unitarian elder, shielded him Horatio cultivates the street boys aged 12 to 16
  • 1867 raises money for Five Points mission, Newsboys Lodging, YMCA, Children’s Aid Society Charles O’Connor gives Alger free access to Newsboys Lodging
  • 1867 _Ragged Dick_ , his eighth novel, is a best seller
  • 1868 Phil the Fiddler describes the plight of children as street musicians, attack on the padrone system
  • 1872 starts to work for the Seligman family, as a tutor and guardian for their boys, continued until 1877
  • 1873 grand tour of Europe with his parents, his brother, his sister Augusta and her husband
  • 1877 Life of Edwin Forrest (serious biography) published Street boy fiction moves West
  • 1880-1890 Alger informally adopts three street boys who serve as models for characters in his books: Charlie Davis (_The Young CircusRider_ , 1883), John Downie , a newsboy (_Mark Mason’s Mission_ 1886) and (_Chester Rand_, 1892), and Edward J. (Tommy) Downie (_The Odds Against Him_, 1889)
  • 1880 – 1890 portrayal of Jewish money lenders and pawn brokers in his novels
  • 1881 Alger publisher A.K Loring goes bankrupt
  • 1881 instant book, biography of James Garfield From Canal Boy to President
  • 1883 tutors young Benjamin and Elizabeth Cardozo
  • 1885 tutors Lewis Einstein
  • 1885 – 1899 liberal Republican (mugwump) themes in novels
  • 1886 – 1896 revival of Alger popularity, 39 serial novels
  • 1892 attends the 40 year reunion of his college class
  • 1896 leaves New York permanently
  • 1898 Alger, ill, selects Edward Stratemeyer to complete the books he has started
  • 1899 died – Alger’s sister Augusta destroys his personal papers
  • 1900 – 1910 many more Alger books sold (in cheap editions) than during his life time
  • 1926 Alger all but unknown
  • 1940 – resurrection of the Horatio Alger myth and canonization of his heroes
  1. How did Horatio Alger, Jr. come to leave the ministry?

Early in 1866, Horatio Alger, Jr.’s contract was up for renewal.  Some members of the church board did not want to renew the contract because they were concerned that Alger was not married and that he seemed to spend too much time with the congregation’s group for boys, the temperance cadets.  Other members of the board supported Alger.  In the absence of specific allegations, they felt the contract should be renewed. The board delayed the decision for a week and launched an investigation of their minister.  The thirteen year old son of a member of the church board, after questioning, told his father  that Alger had had sexual contact with him. The boy had gone to Alger’s rooms to return a book, leaving his younger sister in a carriage.  When the boy entered his room, Alger allegedly locked the door and molested the boy.  The ensuing investigation named a second boy (aged 15) as being involved with Alger.  The report of the committee implies there may have been other boys involved.  Alger did not reply specifically to the charges.  Rather he admitted to acting “imprudently.”  The charges did not use clinical language.  Rather they mention “unnatural familiarity with boys.”  To avoid a public hearing on the charges, the church board allowed Alger to resign from his post and the ministry and leave town immediately.   Subsequent to leaving Brewster, Alger continued to publish in youth journals affiliated with the church.  When a member of the Brewster church complained that Alger’s influence over young boys was dangerous, the publisher of the journal, Joseph H. Allen, a church elder familiar with the Brewster incident, replied that Alger was entitled to earn a living.  Scholars did not unearth evidence of the Brewster incident until more than one hundred years later.  Apparently, the records of the local church in Brewster and the Unitarian Convention were incomplete on this point.  This is to be expected since the mater did not proceed to a formal hearing.  Part of the Horatio Alger formula is that the hero is falsely accused and loses his job because of manufactured evidence.  The motivation for the false evidence is that someone wants the hero’s job.  The Horatio Alger hero leaves quietly without responding to the charges.  Later events exonerate the hero.  This element of the formula dates from before the time of the Brewster episode.  Shortly after the Brewster incident, Alger wrote a poem “Friar Anselmo” whose subject had committed some significant sin and devoted the rest of his life to good works as atonement.  The friar achieves some sort of peace, realizing the world will be a better place if he continues to live and continues his ministry.  For Alger, writing for boys was his ministry.

  1. What authors have updated or parodied the Horatio Alger formula story?

Theodore Dreiser frequently parodies Alger.  _The Financier_ is an attempt to modernize the Alger myth.  Its hero is Frank Algernon Cowperwood.  Raymond Feist, the science fiction writer, has used some Horatio Alger themes in the Serpent War Saga.  F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is an Alger parody.  Gatsby is the antithesis of the typical Alger hero.  Lawrence Sanders, the writer of hard-boiled detective fiction, wrote two stories for _Playboy_, “The Adventures of Chauncey Alcock” (April, 1972)and “The Further Adventures of Chauncey Alcock” (December, 1972). The stories are sex comedies in the Horatio Alger style.  A Nathaniel West novel, _A Cool Million_ parodies the Alger formula quite mercilessly (literally tearing a classic Alger hero into pieces, limb by limb) and simultaneously uses his language (whole paragraphs out of Alger novels).  Hunter S. Thompson, _Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas_ parodies the Ager myth. Raoul Duke, Thompson’s alter ego, refers to himself as a “monster reincarnation” of Horatio Alger. In the movie,  Johnny Depp plays Thompson. Or, more precisely, Raoul Duke, the alias Thompson uses while he and Acosta scam their way from Glitter Gulch to the Strip in search of “Free Enterprise. The American Dream. Horatio Alger gone mad on drugs in Las Vegas.”


  1. What is the Horatio Alger Society?

The Horatio Alger Society is a group organized ” To further the philosophy of Horatio Alger, Jr., and to encourage the spirit ofStrive and Succeed that for half a century guided Alger’s undaunted heroes …”

The members of the society are Alger collectors and scholars.  Many collect other juvenile series as well as Horatio Alger.  The Newsboy is the official newsletter of the Horatio Alger Society. It is published bi-montly (six issues per yearThe Horatio Alger Society has its own web site:                  http://www.ihot.com/~has  The e-mail address for the Horatio Alger Society is          has@ihot.com


  1. Did any of Alger’s juvenile novels have female protagonists?

Two of the juvenile novels had female protagonists: _Helen Ford_ (1866) (prior to Ragged Dick) and _Tattered Tom_ (1871)(after Ragged Dick)


Copyright (c) 1996 by Bill Roach All rights reserved.