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    Something for the Boys

    rainbowguyHe is probably the most important and influential American author that nobody reads. Horatio Alger, Jr., best known for his inspiring “books for boys”—more than  a hundred of them—popularized one of the greatest myths of modern American culture: that anyone, no matter how impoverished and disadvantaged his origin or limited his opportunities seemed, can rise from “rags to riches” through hard work, determination, and perseverance to become rich and successful.

    Except Alger did not actually write “rags to riches” stories. He wrote “rags to respectability” stories, something very different. His theme was moral salvation, not financial success, which none of his boys achieved on his own. All of them had help, usually from an older man who rewarded them for a good deed or heroic act, took them into his business or his home—sometimes both—mentored them and cared for them.

    Alger grew up wanting to be an author, but it was a scandal of major proportions that turned him to writing as a more or less full time career. In 1864 he accepted the position of pastor with a church in Brewster, Massachusetts, at a salary of $800 a year. He delivered spirited sermons, worked for moral purity—he founded the local chapter of the Cadets for Temperance—and involved himself in all particulars of parish life.

    He was especially devoted to his congregation’s youth, organizing and joining them for sports events, hikes, and excursions. Eventually, some the faithful wondered why he “was always with the boys.” Then they wondered why this eligible bachelor was not keeping company with any of the parish’s unmarried young women. They finally formed a committee to investigate his personal conduct. What they found was that their minister was guilty of “the abominable and revolting crime of gross familiarity with boys.”



    Alger did not deny the charges, claiming only that he had been “imprudent.” He resigned, promised never to take another ecclesiastic position, and left town. No formal charges were made against him, and the incident was hidden for the next hundred years. One parishioner tried to stop his stories from appearing in Student and Schoolmate, a boys’ monthly magazine devoted to moral writings, but was unsuccessful.

    Humiliated and guilt-ridden, Alger resolved to atone for his “moral lapses” by devoting his life to saving others. He moved to New York City in 1867, where he found his cause. Visiting places frequented by street boys, he became an advocate for these neglected and abandoned children, supported the institutions trying to help them, and worked for child welfare legislation.

    Alger resolved to give disadvantaged children, through his writings, “examples of what energy, ambition, and an honest purpose may achieve:” a way out of poverty. He also wanted to “depict the inner life and represent the feelings and emotions of these little waifs of city … to excite a deeper and more widespread sympathy [for them] in the public mind.” Other children, he believed, also would benefit from his “simple tales of honesty triumphant” and both boys and men would learn the value of helping others.


    In 1867 he wrote Student and Schoolmate, a three-part story, which was published as Ragged Dick; or, Street Life in New York. The tale centers around the life of a hard-working young bootblack, determined to become “spectable,” who saves a drowning child and is rewarded by his grateful father with a new suit and a job in his mercantile firm. Published as a book in 1868 by A. K. Loring, who specialized in literature for children, it became a best seller.

    For every success like Ragged Dick, however, perhaps a dozen or more neglected boys wound up in some kind of criminal activity. A few combined selling newspapers or carrying luggage with male prostitution. Bootblacking, Dick’s profession, made an ideal cover: finding a dark corner a boy, kneeling down, could seem to polish his client’s shoes while providing more intimate services. In San Francisco, older boys, rouged, powdered and perfumed, gathered at the intersection of Third and Market streets, where they “plied their trade … in an evening.”

    Alger never married, and no evidence exists that he was ever again sexually intimate with anyone, male or female. Perhaps, to atone for his “moral turpitude,” he simply abstained from any “persistent desires” in an ongoing “struggle against carnal temptation.” Or perhaps all trace of intimacy disappeared when his sister, at his request, burned his personal papers after his death.


    Never considered to be a great literary stylist, even during his lifetime, Alger’s prose seems archaic today, making his moral tales feel that much more outdated. Although he did not create or advocate the “Horatio Alger myth” of “rags to riches,” he did something more important. He motivated millions of boys by his beliefs that all of us have value and that each of us can realize our potential when allowed or enabled to do so. Those ideas, once intrinsically and integrally woven into the fabric of American culture, are as vital as ever.

    Bill Lipsky, Ph.D., author of “Gay and Lesbian San Francisco” (2006), is a member of the Rainbow Honor Walk board of directors.