Image of Horatio Alger, Jr.


Lifetime: 1832 - 1899 Passed: ≈ 124 years ago




United States

Horatio Alger

Horatio Alger Jr. was an American writer of young adult novels about impoverished boys and their rise from humble backgrounds to lives of middle-class security and comfort through good works. His writings were characterized by the "rags-to-riches" narrative, which had a formative effect on the United States during the Gilded Age.

All of Alger's juvenile novels share essentially the same theme: a teenage boy improves his circumstances by virtuous behaviour. There is a "Horatio Alger myth" that the boy becomes wealthy through hard work, but this is inaccurate. In the actual stories, invariably the cause of success is an accident that works to the boy's advantage after he conducts himself according to traditional virtues such as honesty, charity, and altruism. The boy might return a large sum of lost money or rescue someone from an overturned carriage. This brings the boy—and his plight—to the attention of a wealthy individual. In one story, for example, a young boy is almost run over by streetcar and a homeless orphan youth snatches him out of the way to safety. The young boy's father turns out to be wealthy and adopts the orphan rescuer.

Alger secured his literary niche in 1868 with the publication of his fourth book, Ragged Dick, the story of a poor bootblack's rise to middle-class respectability. This novel was a huge success. His many books that followed were essentially variations on Ragged Dick and featured stock characters: the valiant, hard-working, honest youth; the noble mysterious stranger; the snobbish youth; and the evil, greedy squire.

In the 1870s, Alger's fiction was growing stale. His publisher suggested he tour the American West for fresh material to incorporate into his fiction. Alger took a trip to California, but the trip had little effect on his writing: he remained mired in the staid theme of "poor boy makes good." The backdrops of these novels, however, became the American West rather than the urban environments of the northeastern United States.

In the last decades of the 19th century, Alger's moral tone coarsened with the change in boys' tastes. The public wanted sensational thrills. The Protestant work ethic was less prevalent in the United States, and violence, murder, and other sensational themes entered Alger's works. Public librarians questioned whether his books should be made available to the young. They were briefly successful, but interest in Alger's novels was renewed in the first decades of the 20th century, and they sold in the thousands. By the time he died in 1899, Alger had published around a hundred volumes. He is buried in Natick, Massachusetts. Since 1947, the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans has awarded scholarships and prizes to deserving individuals.

Books by Horatio Alger

Adrift in New York Cover image

Adrift in New York

Luck Courage Determination Honesty

Set in 19th century New York, this is the story of a wealthy old man who adopts his orphaned nephew and niece after his own four year old son mysteriously disappears. However, under a smooth exterior, the nephew is a conniving and avaricious villain...

Ragged Dick Cover image

Ragged Dick

Fiction Novel
Children's Literature Bildungsroman

Ragged Dick; or, Street Life in New York with the Boot Blacks is a Bildungsroman by Horatio Alger Jr., which was serialized in The Student and Schoolmate in 1867 and expanded for publication as a full-length novel in May 1868 by the publisher A. K. L...

Helping Himself, or Grant Thornton's Ambition Cover image

Helping Himself, or Grant Thornton's Ambition

Fiction Memoir
Kidnapping Juvenile fiction

Helping Himself, or Grant Thornton's Ambition deals with the grit and determination of Grant, a 15 year old farmer's boy whose father is dead and in order to pay his minister father's debts, and to help his mother deal with their abject poverty young...

Timothy Crump's Ward  Cover image

Timothy Crump's Ward

Adventure Action
Family 19th century Love Children Moral Classics Historical

A poor family is surprised with an infant on their doorstep on New Year’s Eve with a note and monetary support requesting them to raise the child. Eight years later, the child is stolen and the family is put into more trouble trying to find her. This...

Fame and Fortune  Cover image

Fame and Fortune

Adventure Action
Fortune Jealousy Success Moral General Fiction

Richard Hunter, formerly Ragged Dick, continues to advance in the world through luck and excellent morals. He, along with his friend Henry, moves into a better boarding house and then finds a promising job. He is framed for theft by a jealous co-work...

Dan, the Newsboy Cover image

Dan, the Newsboy

Adventure Action Fiction
Poverty Education Success Narrative Integrity Determination Life Classics Beliefs Experiences Resilience

In this gripping tale, Alger introduces us to Dan Mordaunt, a street-smart newsboy fighting against the odds to improve his life. From the very first page, readers are drawn into Dan's world—a world filled with hardship, unexpected encounters, and li...

Mark the Match Boy or Richard Hunter's Ward Cover image

Mark the Match Boy or Richard Hunter's Ward

Fiction Novel
Young Innocence Poverty Crime Art Integrity Hard work Wealth Adversity

Mark, a young orphan boy, sells matches on the streets of New York City to survive. One day, he witnesses a robbery and bravely intervenes, saving the victim's life. This act of heroism brings him to the attention of Richard Hunter, a wealthy busines...

Rough and Ready OR Life Among the New York Newsboys Cover image

Rough and Ready OR Life Among the New York Newsboys

Adventure Fiction
Dream Youth Spirit Poverty Action Success Determination Unity

In the gritty streets of 19th-century New York, where survival hinges on street smarts and grit, young Johnny Walker finds himself thrust into a world of challenges that demand more than just a newspaper pitch. In "Rough and Ready: Life Among the New...