The hero of "Ragged Dick" is a veritable "diamond in the rough" - as innately virtuous as he is streetwise and cocky. Immediately popular with young readers, the novel also appeals to parents, who responded to its colorful espousal of the Protestant ethic. "Struggling Upward," published nearly thirty years later, followed the same time-tested formulas, and despite critical indifference it, too, had mass appeal. Though the days when Horatio Alger was one of the most widely read authors in America have long since passed, his message--that by dint of hard work, decent morals, good manners and a hefty serving of luck, any American boy can rise from rags to riches—was once read and believed by every significant man of business, politics, literature and academia in America in the early decades of this century. It is impossible to understand these men and the America that they forged without understanding the one author who was most likely a formative influence on them. Except for a couple of decades of despair brought on by the Great Depression, it is, has been, and seems sure to remain, the uniquely American idea that anyone can succeed. Though Alger was not the originator of these beliefs, the many copies of his books certainly contributed to the entrepreneurial spirit of America. There is something refreshing about Alger's straightforward, unmannered writing style. The mere absence of all of the modern stylistic devices that so often make reading modern novels a chore, makes reading the books a pleasure. Then there is the vicarious thrill of reading about a good boy making good. And, beneath the outer layers of poverty, Alger's heroes are enormously appealing. There is a reason that the term "Horatio Alger story" lives on in our lexicon. The concept touches something deep within our psyche, confirming something that we desperately want to believe about individuals and about the type of world and society that we live in. Let the critics ridicule Alger’s stories, but when America stops believing in the power and the truth of the Alger myth, we will cease to be a great nation.
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Horatio Alger, Jr. (1834–1899) was a prolific 19th-century American author, best known for his many formulaic juvenile novels about impoverished boys and their rise from humble backgrounds to lives of respectable middle-class security and comfort through hard work, determination, courage, and honesty. He initially wrote and published for adults, but a friendship with boys' author William Taylor Adams led him to writing for the young. He published for years in Adams's Student and Schoolmate, a boys' magazine of moral writings. His lifelong theme of "rags to respectability" had a profound impact on America in the Gilded Age. His works gained even greater popularity following his death, but gradually lost reader interest in the 1920s. Gary Scharnhorst, author of Horatio Alger, Jr., describes Alger's style as "anachronistic", "often laughable", "distinctive", and "distinguished by the quality of its literary allusions." These allusions are what set his work apart from the pulps, Scharnhorst opines, and include the Bible, Shakespeare (in half his books), John Milton, Longfellow, Cicero, Horace, Joseph Addison, Oliver Goldsmith, Alexander Pope, Thomas Gray, William Cowper, and many others. "By the diversity of his allusions," Scharnhorst writes, "Alger ... both revealed his erudition and enhanced the literary quality of his work."
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