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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 510

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This is the grave of Horatio Alger.

Born in 1832 in Chelsea, Massachusetts, Alger grew up in relative comfort. His father was a fairly prominent Unitarian minister and the family had roots deep into the Puritan past. He was a sickly boy, suffering from asthma. But he was headed into the ministry anyway. In 1844, the family moved to a larger congregation in Marlborough, Massachusetts and Alger went to school there and entered Harvard in 1848. He did very well there, though the fact that he wasn’t a true elite limited him at that bastion of snobbery. He started selling his writing to magazines in 1849 and graduated 8th in his class in 1852. But the next years were tough. He really didn’t want to go into the ministry but struggled to find anything else. He certainly wasn’t making enough on writing to live off it. He edited a newspaper for awhile but hated it and quit. He taught at a boys school in Rhode Island for a couple of years, but it folded. He finally got serious about the ministry and attended Harvard Divinity between 1857 and 1860. He traveled in Europe a bit, coming home when the Civil War started. Alger was not healthy enough to serve, but wrote in favor of the Union cause. He also sold his first novel, Marie Bertrand: The Felon’s Daughter, serialized in the New York Weekly in 1864. He wrote for other magazines too, including Harper’s.

Still, none of this was really supporting him and he was in his 30s. So Alger finally took a position as a minister at a Unitarian church in Brewster, Massachusetts. There was just one small problem: Alger liked raping boys. It was discovered in early 1866 that he was abusing boys in the church. The church wrote to Boston that he was guilty of “the abominable and revolting crime of gross familiarity with boys.” Alger didn’t even bother denying it. He admitted it, left the church, and moved back in with his parents. No idea whether Alger had been engaging in that behavior before he had the church, but as we know, people engaged in sexual abuse tend to do it again and again and again. In an era where very little of this would have been reported, we can’t truly know.

Alger moved to New York and turned his interest in pre-teen boys into a new vocation: using them as heroes in stories that reflected well on capitalism. He published Ragged Dick, a name that takes on highly unfortunate multiple connotations once Alger’s past is known, in 12 installments in 1867 in a magazine called Student and Schoolmate. It was hugely successful. He got a contract to expand it and make it a full novel, published in 1868. This started a whole new and very successful career for Alger, writing formulaic stories about boys in the Gilded Age that told the nation’s capitalist masters what they wanted to hear. Inevitably, a boy was down on his luck. Through chance, he happened across a beneficent capitalist. That capitalist gave him a chance. The boy took the chance. A new generation of capitalism was born with everyone feeling great about America and the fact that you could go to rags and riches. And let’s not talk about unions or all the people dying on the job or all of that stuff. Nah, it’s the fault of the poor for not being an entrepreneurial and clean-living and spirited as Ragged Dick. Certainly as well, many have easily read homoeroticism into Alger’s books. It’s not hard to see it if you are unfortunate enough to actually read them. If you really have to, just read Ragged Dick because it’s famous. Don’t waste your time on the rest.

Despite the success of the books, Alger evidently spent a lot of money and needed work on the side. So the wealthy international banker Joseph Seligman hired Alger to live in his house and teach his five boys. Given Alger’s background this is unbelievably horrifying, but at the very least, I’ve never heard of any sexual abuse coming out of this situation. By the late 1870s, Alger’s formulaic books had also stopped selling well, took a long trip around Cape Horn with his brother, spent some time in the West, and went back to writing, but it was the same schlock except set on the frontier. In 1881, he wrote a hack biography of James Garfield that included made up conversations and ridiculous adventures that never happened. So of course this actually sold well and then he got to write a similar type of “biography” of Lincoln that again largely included of young boys’ adventures.

In his later years, Alger was a sort of senior literary and reform figure in Massachusetts, though no one really bought his books anymore. He had informally adopted a bunch of street boys over the years as well–again, this is really horrifying–and most of them seem to have succeeded reasonably well. He was evidently living the role of the capitalist in Ragged Dick. And at the very least, there was no reports of him raping those boys that have become public, but, again, who knows.

In 1896, Alger suffered a nervous breakdown. He moved in with his sister and then faded after that, dying in 1899, at the age of 67. His books were extremely out of fashion at the time, but revived after his death and remained popular into the 1920s. Suddenly, with the Depression, the bottom fell out of his stories. Gee, I wonder why.

The fact that the man so central to creating American fictions about capitalism that the term “Horatio Alger” is synonymous with pulling yourself by your bootstraps is a pedophile says most of what I need to know about the moral bankruptcy of capitalism.

Horatio Alger is buried in Glennwood Cemetery, Natick, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other scribbling hacks of American plutocracy, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Dale Carnegie is in Belton, Missouri and Norman Vincent Peale is in Pawling, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here

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