Horatio Alger
Copyright Michael D. Robbins 2006

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Even those barons who were able to educate their sons preferred to entrust them to the care of some neighboring knight, that the young aspirant to chivalric honors might not from parental tenderness be spared those trials and hardships necessary to prepare him for his future career.

No period of my life has been one of such unmixed happiness as the four years which have been spent within college walls.

The candidate was required to prepare himself by confession, fasting, and passing the night in prayer.

The education of those destined to chivalry commenced at the age of seven years.

The institution of chivalry forms one of the most remarkable features in the history of the Middle Ages.

Thus the castle of each feudal chieftain became a school of chivalry, into which any noble youth, whose parents were from poverty unable to educate him to the art of war, was readily received.


Horatio Alger, Jr. was born on January 13, 1832. His father was a Unitarian minister and his family often suffered financially. To earn extra money, the elder Horatio worked as the first postmaster of the town and tended a small farm; he also occasionally taught grammar school. Regardless of his efforts to provide a stable living the Alger family was never comfortable, and the father eventually left town in 1844, and his remaining property was assigned to a creditor. This individual is believed to be the source of the miser figure in the younger Horatio's later works.

Young Horatio was near-sightedness and had asthma, but was academically able. His father began to teach him at six and Horatio quickly learned to read and write; by eight, he had commenced the study of Latin and algebra.

The family moved to Marlborough, Massachusetts, and Horatio entered preparatory school, excelling in his studies and further developed his Latin abilities while also learning Greek. By the age of sixteen in 1848, the young man was accepted into the freshman class of Harvard University.

At college Alger made permanent friends with many class members and studied under Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a significant influence. At Harvard, he began his writing career, his works including poetry, short sketches, and essays on medieval chivalry and studies on Cervantes. He was named the Class Poet, and at reunions much later in life, would deliver odes to the years he enjoyed so much.

After graduation Alger was determined to earn a living based on his writing, but performed rather poorly. Major newspapers and magazines refused many of his works, and those works which were accepted by such publications as the Christian Register probably garnered him little, if any, pay. During this time, Alger appears to have accepted that his literary career might not be illustrious. He used pseudonyms, including "Carl Cantab," and "Charles F. Preston," which he used to publish writings he considered second-rate. He took a number of temporary schoolteacher positions which didn't take much of his time, and he continued to write for monthly publications.

A foreshadowing to his later troubles in life is hinted at in the majority of these published works, which were mainly short comedic sketches for adults. The works include plots of sexual subterfuge, in which a bachelor is tricked into marriage with a woman who is unsuitably old or ugly. Another work has the bachelor tricked by a letter he thinks to be from a female admirer, which is actually from a male prankster. In a serious poem published in 1854, Alger took the voice of a jilted woman who curses her lover for breaking her heart.

Alger left Cambridge to take a teaching position in Rhode Island, and after three years he returned to Theological School, where he spent the next three years. After graduation, Alger went on a tour of Europe for ten months; Alger enjoyed his time abroad and wrote for publication to the monthlies for which he had written before. He assumed the role of the wealthy traveler and observer. Many of his experiences were also used in his later juvenile works.

Alger returned from Europe at the start of the Civil War. Although he was drafted, his poor health and slight stature (Alger was 5' 2" as an adult), he was assigned to the home front for the duration of the war.

However, he maintained intimate correspondence with a sixteen-year-old soldier named Joseph Dean; extant letters show that the two men had an extremely close friendship. .

Alger accepted the call to minister at the First Unitarian Church and Society of Brewster, Massachusetts. He performed his duties capably and his abilities were appreciated by the congregation. Unfortunately, after ministering for just over one year, rumors of impropriety circulated. In 1866, a member of the congregation, wrote: On the Sabbath after services, [a young boy] called at [Alger's] room to leave a book...[Alger] bolted his door and then, and then, committed this unnatural crime.

After an inquiry, two boys testified that Alger had molested them. When confronted, Alger admitted that he had been "imprudent," and left town immediately. Although the congregation was prepared to charge Alger publicly, the Unitarian Association persuaded them to accept Alger's resignation and assurance that he would never again work as a minister.

Alger was again without steady employment and turned to writing. One of his first works of this time is "Friar Anselmo's Sin," which appears to dictate his method of atonement: to expiate his crime against those young men, Horatio chose to write a series of novels for young boys that contained admonitory and edifying messages. It is here that Alger's writing career truly becomes notable.

At thirty-four, Alger moved to New York and began to study the habits of the young homeless boys of the city, at the time called "street Arabs." Alger worked actively to promote systems of public support for the homeless children of New York. Alger took in several boys, each of whom he used as the inspiration for characters in his works. During this time Alger wrote one of his most popular works, Ragged Dick. Critics praised the novel. Finally feeling that he had found his talent, Alger proceeded to produce eighteen more novels in just six years. Unfortunately, in comparison to the rather rousing style of Ragged Dick, many of his next works were panned as insipid recreations of the same story. Despite the critic's remarks, the books all sold well, and Alger enjoyed continued popularity.

At this time, Alger lived and taught the young sons of Joseph Seligman, a former Harvard classmate.He was soon a favorite of his pupils and remained in this position for seven years.

In 1873, Alger took a hiatus from both his literary and teaching professions to embark on a second tour of Europe. Although the trip seemed more aimless than the previous, he enjoyed himself; unfortunately, he returned to face the stock market crash of 1874.

He spent time in New England to protect his lungs from the soot and smoke that was common in New York City, and then took a tour of the Western United States. Though he continued to write prodigiously, he was lacking in new ideas, so he changed the setting of his works and began novels that took place outside of the city

Though his works still sold quite well, the market was flooded with juvenile fiction, and his sales began to drop. Alger began to dress up his works with an increase in criminal action and violence. Unluckily, this coinced with newspapers, schools, and organizations rising up to protest this facet of dime novels. Alger responded by switching genres; instead of fiction, he wrote loose juvenile biographies of American heroes. His critics could not raise complaint against these works without seeming unpatriotic. Horatio also became involved in liberal Republican political activities where he publicly criticized cutthroat business techniques, and his works condemn ed wealthy investors, and so his novels included villains that unfairly swindled his other characters.

His switch to non-fiction did not bolster his flagging sales. By the mid-1880's, Alger's career had entered its twilight. No longer working for the Seligman's, Alger lived in boarding houses; he also suffered from loneliness and depression. Even the company of his many young wards troubled him and he criticized his former employer in his Jewish misers and pawnbrokers, and many of his novels were set in a rural town like the one of his childhood. It appears that Alger was tiring of his place in the world and the world itself.

By the mid-1890's, he seemed to give up on helping his young friends. In a letter to a close friend in 1896, he wrote: "I gave up my room on 34th St. because I had too many young callers who were unwelcome...For this reason please don't tell them where I am" (137). Later in the same year, suffering from acute bronchitis, Alger left New York to live with his sister Augusta in Natick, Massachusetts. Although he intended this to be a lull, two years later he was still unable to complete any new works because of health problems.

For one partial manuscript he choose an editor to ghostwrite the remainder of the novel. This was finished in December 1898, but Alger was unable to read it due to eye trouble.

On July 18, 1899, Alger died at his sister's home of heart disease, leaving instructions to his sister to make the funeral as private as possible, with as few personal details as necessary; his true age was not reported at the event, and his remains were cremated before burial. Augusta destroyed all of his personal writings and correspondence. His will left almost everything to family and friends.


from bio above, "his poor health and slight stature (Alger was 5' 2" as an adult)."

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