Thursday, January 17, 2013

Book(s) Review: THE "RAGGED DICK" SERIES by Horatio Alger, Jr., edited by Charles Carter (Amazon Digital Services)

During my recent bout of whatever-it-was-but-it-wasn't-quite-the-flu, I felt badly in need of some "comfort reading."  I found it in the unexpected form of the first six novels written by Horatio Alger, Jr., part of a recent slew of Kindle books that I downloaded using a couple of gift cards.  I was not unacquainted with the works of the famed author of "Rags to Riches" stories, having been gifted with a volume collecting RAGGED DICK and MARK, THE MATCH BOY at some point during my early teenage years.  The intervening volume, FAME AND FORTUNE, had been referenced at several points in MARK, THE MATCH BOY, but I had never read it until now, much less known that there were three additional volumes in the "series."  Calling this a "series," by the way, is severely pushing it; there is only the thinnest of connective tissue between the first three novels and the second three novels in this sextet.  A couple of minor characters from the earlier books make very brief appearances in the later books, and Ragged Dick, aka Richard Hunter, is mentioned once during the last three volumes.  That's it.

These stories, published between 1867 and 1870, were the tomes that cemented Alger's reputation and established the "formula" that would inform most of his later works: the poor boy who "struggles upward" to achieve ultimate success.  Is it really surprising that a fan of Scrooge McDuck would find such a narrative attractive?  At this early stage of his career, though, Alger had not yet settled into assembly-line production; in particular, he was paying careful attention to characterization, especially in the works featuring the wise-cracking bootblack Ragged Dick.  Wikipedia's claim that the typical Alger novel "featured a cast of stock characters: the valiant hard-working, honest youth (who knew more Latin than the villain), the noble, mysterious stranger (whom the poor boy rescued and by whom he got rewarded), the snobbish youth (cousin), and the evil squire (uncle)" isn't remotely close to the truth at this point.  Ragged Dick knows no Latin (at the start, he can barely write or read English) and needs to be weaned off of such bad habits as smoking and squandering what few cents he has on amusements; the "noble strangers" who encourage him to seek a better life are a middle-class uncle and nephew whose wishes for the bootblack are quite modest; and Dick's antagonists range from an arrogant, would-be "young gentleman" (well, even a blind Wikipedia-rootling pig finds an acorn on occasion) to a plug-ugly rival bootblack.  In positing the existence of good, bad, and indifferent characters on all socioeconomic levels, Alger's "simplistic" worldview is well in advance of a typical Hollywood movie in the age of Obama (when was the last time a businessperson was presented in a good light in a movie you saw?).  And, with repetition not yet having dulled his enthusiasm, Alger appears to take great pleasure in introducing colorful and interesting supporting players.  RAGGED DICK, FAME AND FORTUNE, and MARK, THE MATCH BOY are filled with memorable incidents and snapshots of pre-Civil War New York and the wide variety of characters who peopled its streets.  The middle-class Richard Hunter's care of the impoverished Mark, the Match Boy -- who, as you might guess, doesn't finish the story in nearly as bad a way -- brings the trilogy full circle in a satisfying manner.

With the introduction of newspaper hawker Rough and Ready (all sorts of rhymes are coming to my mind just now), we begin to see Alger's creative genius becoming a bit lazy... just a bit.  R&R comes off as basically a pale carbon copy of Ragged Dick, though his circumstances are somewhat different (he has a younger sister to care for and an evil, drunken stepfather to avoid), and Alger's pedestrian writing style seems a bit more labored in this second group of three books.  The story of BEN, THE LUGGAGE BOY seems to be dropped into the Rough and Ready saga from a parallel universe; indeed, it's almost a typical Alger story in reverse, with young Ben, alienated from his father, going to Gotham to seek his fortune, only to wind up poor, guilt-ridden, and penitent.  It's a mystery to me why Alger didn't simply present this cautionary tale as a stand-alone.

Because of his profound influence on a whole generation of upwardly mobile strivers and captains of industry, Alger deserves to be read today, and these six novels -- the first three, in particular -- are as good a place as any to direct one's attention.  Great art, they're not, but they still contain plenty of entertainment value, and not a few useful reminders of common-sense values, too.

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