Horatio Alger (1832-1899) was the American author of prodigiously popular and influential juvenile novels and biographies.
Horatio Alger was born in Revere, Mass., the son of a Unitarian minister. The fervent father so rigorously supervised his son's early training that at 9 the boy was known as "Holy Horatio." Soon he was doing superior work at Gates Academy and, later, at Harvard, from which he graduated at 19. After a few years as a tutor and journalist, he acceded to his father's wishes and enrolled in the Harvard Divinity School; he received his diploma in 1860. But instead of entering the ministry, thanks to an unexpected inheritance he was enabled to go abroad, and free from parental supervision he enjoyed 7 months of bohemian travel. Returning home, he served as a Unitarian minister until 1866, when he moved to New York to make it his home until his very last years.
Having already published four moderately successful books for children, Alger decided to continue writing. With Ragged Dick, or Street Life in New York (1868) he scored his first formidable success. Attracted by the book, Charles O'Connor, a social worker, invited Alger to visit the Newsboys' Lodging House. The author served actively in the operation of this home for foundlings and runaways for 30 years. Much of the material for his subsequent books came from interviews with its young male residents: Fame and Fortune (1868), Mark the Match Boy (1869), Rough and Ready (1869), Sink or Swim (1870), Ben the Luggage Boy (1870), Paul the Peddler (1871), Bound to Rise (1872). After a trip to the Far West made at the urging of his publisher, Alger wrote The Young Miner (1879), The Young Explorer (1880), Ben's Nugget (1882), and Joe's Luck (1887). His instructive biographies about self-made political leaders sold widely: From Canal Boy to President (1881), concerning James A. Garfield; From Farm Boy to Senator (1882), about Daniel Webster; and Lincoln, the Backwoods Boy (1883). Altogether Alger wrote 109 books averaging 50,000 words each, plus some 100,000 words of shorter material, thus producing about 150,000 words a year during his literary career.
The typical Alger hero was a boy who, born poor, overcame odds by living virtuously and working hard and rose to fame and fortune. The preachment in the books that honesty, perseverance, and industry were certain to be rewarded was taken seriously and followed faithfully by many boys in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who read some of the estimated 20,000,000 copies sold in the United States alone. The author himself lived according to his favorite formula: he rose from poverty to the affluence possible on annual earnings of $20,000 during a period when money had at least three times its present value. Ironically, and unhappily for his credibility, Alger's own life story ended in poverty in his sister's home in Natick, Mass., where he died in 1899.
Further Reading on Horatio Alger
Frank Gruber, himself a prolific author of popular fiction, is chiefly interested in Alger's bibliography in Horatio Alger, Jr.: A Biography and a Bibliography (1961). More valuable for information about the author's life, his influence, and the quality of his writings are John W. Tebbel, From Rags to Riches (1963), and Ralph D. Gardner, Horatio Alger, or the American Hero Era (1964).
Additional Biography Sources
Gardner, Ralph D., Horatio Alger: or, The American hero era, New York: Arco Pub. Co., 1978, 1971.
Hoyt, Edwin Palmer, Horatio's boys: the life and works of Horatio Alger, Jr., New York: Stein and Day, 1983, 1974.
Scharnhorst, Gary, Horatio Alger, Jr., Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980.
Scharnhorst, Gary, The lost life of Horatio Alger, Jr., Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.