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
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
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
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
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
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.