Horatio Alger, Jr. was born January 13, 1832 in the New England coastal town of Chelsea, Massachusetts. Horatio was a descendant of Plymouth Pilgrims Robert Cushman, Thomas Cushman, William Bassett, Sylvanus Lazell, and Edmund Lazell.
Horatio grew up afflicted with nearsightedness and bronchial asthma.
At the age of 12, Horatio’s father moved the family to Marlborough, Massachusetts, 25 miles west of Boston.
By the age of 13 in 1845, Horatio was pastor of the Second Congregation Society earning a salary sufficient to meet his needs.
In July 1848 Alger passed the Harvard entrance examinations, and was admitted to the class of 1852. Horatio flowered in the highly disciplined and regimented Harvard environment, winning scholastic prizes and prestigious awards.
His genteel poverty and less-than-aristocratic heritage however barred him from membership in the Hasty Pudding and Porcellian clubs.
In 1849, at the age of 17, Horatio became a professional writer when he sold two essays and a poem to the Pictorial National Library, a Boston magazine.
Horatio graduated from Harvard in 1852 with Phi Beta Kappa honors, eighth in a class of 88.
Horatio had no job prospects following graduation and returned home. He continued to write, submitting his work to religious and literary magazines with varying success.
In November of 1853, Horatio took a job as an assistant editor with the Boston Daily Advertiser. However, he loathed editing and quit in 1854 to teach at The Grange, a boys’ boarding school in Rhode Island.
When The Grange suspended operations in 1856, Horatio found employment managing the 1856 summer session at Deerfield Academy.
Horatio’s poems at this time expressed a sexual ambivalence, and were sometimes written in a woman’s voice.
His first book was a collection of short pieces called Bertha’s Christmas Vision: An Autumn Sheaf, which was published in 1856, and his second book, a lengthy satirical poem called Nothing to Do: A Tilt at our Best Society, was published in 1857.
Horatio attended the Harvard Divinity School from 1857 to 1860, and upon graduation, decided to take a tour of Europe.
In the spring of 1861, Horatio returned to a nation in the throes of the Civil War. Drafted but exempted from military service in July 1863, he wrote in support of the Union cause and hobnobbed with New England intellectuals.
Horatio was elected an officer in the New England Genealogical Society in 1863.
His first novel Marie Bertrand: The Felon’s Daughter was serialized in the New York Weekly in 1864, and his first boys’ book Frank’s Campaign was published by A. K. Loring in Boston the same year.
Horatio then wrote for some adult magazines, including Harper’s Monthly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.
But it was a friendship with William Taylor Adams, a boys’ author, that led Horatio to begin to write for the young reader.
On December 8, 1864 Horatio was drawn back to the ministry, perhaps due to the Civil war. He was installed as pastor with the First Unitarian Church and Society of Brewster, Massachusetts.
Between ministerial duties, he organized games and amusements for the boys in the parish, railed against smoking and drinking, and organized and served as president of the local chapter of the Cadets for Temperance.
Horatio continued to submit stories to Student and Schoolmate, a boys’ monthly magazine of moral writings edited by William Taylor Adams (Oliver Optic) and published in Boston by Joseph H. Allen.
In September 1865 his second boys’ book Paul Prescott’s Charge was published to favorable reviews.
Then, after the war early in 1866, a church committee was formed to investigate sexual misconduct reports about Horatio. He denied nothing, admitted he had been imprudent, considered his association with the church dissolved, and left town. Church officials reported to the hierarchy in Boston that Horatio had been charged with “the crime of…unnatural familiarity with boys”.
Horatio decided to send Unitarian officials in Boston a letter of remorse, and his father assured them his son would never seek another post in the church.
Officials were satisfied and decided no further action would be taken.
Horatio relocated to New York City, abandoned forever any thought of a career in the church, and focused instead on his writing. He wrote “Friar Anselmo” at this time, a poem that tells of a sinning cleric’s atonement through good deeds.
Horatio became interested in the welfare of the thousands of vagrant children who flooded New York City following the Civil War.
He attended a children’s church service at Five Points which led to “John Maynard”, a ballad about an actual shipwreck on Lake Erie that brought Horatio not only the respect of the literati but a letter from Longfellow.
Horatio then published two poorly received adult novels, Helen Ford and Timothy Crump’s Ward. He fared much better with stories for boys published in Student and Schoolmate and a third boys’ book Charlie Codman’s Cruise.
In January 1867 the first of twelve installments of Ragged Dick appeared in Student and Schoolmate. Horatio’s story about a poor bootblack’s rise to middle class respectability was a huge success. It was expanded, and published as a novel in 1868.
This proved to be Horatio’s bestseller. Ironically, after Ragged Dick he wrote almost entirely for boys, and signed a contract with publisher Loring for a Ragged Dick Series.
In spite of his series’ success, Horatio found himself on financially uncertain ground and began tutoring the five sons of international banker Joseph Seligman.
Horatio wrote serials for Young Israel, and lived in the Seligman home until 1876.
In 1875 Alger produced the serial Shifting for Himself and Sam’s Chance, a sequel to The Young Outlaw.
It became evident in these stories that Horatio’s writings had grown stale. Profits suffered, and he headed West for new material at Loring’s behest, arriving in California in February 1877.
Horatio enjoyed a reunion with his brother James in San Francisco and returned to New York late in 1877 via a schooner around Cape Horn.
Horatio wrote a few lackluster books in the following years that rehashed the formulaic Alger of old but this time the tales were played before a Western backcloth rather than an urban one.
In New York, Horatio continued to tutor the town’s aristocratic youth and to rehabilitate its street boys. He continued to write both urban and Western-themed tales.
In 1877, Alger’s fiction became a target of librarians concerned about sensational juvenile fiction. An effort was made to remove Horatio’s works from public collections, but the debate was only partially successful.
In 1879, for example, he published The District Messenger Boy and The Young Miner.
In 1881, Horatio informally adopted Charlie Davis, a street boy, and another, John Downie, in 1883; they all lived together in Horatio’s apartment.
In 1881, Horatio wrote President James A. Garfield’s biography, but filled the work with contrived conversations and boyish excitements rather than facts. Even so, the book sold well.
Horatio was then commissioned to give Abraham Lincoln a biographical treatment but again his style opted towards thrills rather than facts.
In 1882, Horatio’s father died. He continued to produce stories of honest boys outwitting evil, greedy squires, and malicious youths. His work appeared in both hardcover and paperback, and decades-old poems were published in anthologies.
Horatio began to lead a private life back in Massachusetts with street boys, along with the social elite in a more public way. He became regarded with the same reverence as Harriet Beecher Stowe as Horatio continued to tutor young boys without even a whisper of scandal.
In the last two decades of the 19th century, the quality of Horatio’s books deteriorated and his boys’ works became nothing more than reruns of the plots and themes of his past.
Times had changed, boys expected more, and a streak of violence entered Horatio’s work. In The Young Bank Messenger, for example, a woman is throttled and threatened with death – an episode that would never have occurred in his earlier work.
Horatio attended the theater, read literary magazines, and wrote a poem upon Longfellow’s death in 1892. His last novel for adults, The Disagreeable Woman, was actually published under the pseudonym Julian Starr.
Horatio took pleasure in the successes of the boys he had informally adopted over the years, retained his interest in reform, accepted speaking engagements, and read portions of Ragged Dick to boys’ assemblies.
His popularity—and income—dwindled once more in the 1890s.
By 1896, he had (what he called) a “nervous breakdown”; and relocated permanently to his sister’s home in South Natick, Massachusetts.
After suffering from bronchitis and asthma for two years, Horatio Alger died on July 18, 1899. His death barely noticed.
His literary work was bequeathed to his niece, to two boys he had casually adopted, and to his sister Olive Augusta, who destroyed his manuscripts and his letters per his wishes.
Horatio’s works continued to receive some favorable comments and experienced a kind of resurgence following his death.
In 1926, however, reader interest plummeted and his major publisher ceased printing his books altogether. Surveys in 1932 and 1947 revealed very few children had read or even heard of Alger. The first Alger biography was a heavily fictionalized account published in 1928 by Herbert R. Mayes, who later admitted the work was a fraud.
Today Horatio is still best known for his many formulaic juvenile novels about impoverished boys and their rise from humble backgrounds to lives of middle-class security and comfort through hard work, determination, courage, and honesty. His writings are characterized by the “rags-to-riches” narrative, which had a formative effect on America during the Gilded Age.
Essentially, all of Horatio’s novels are the same: a young boy struggles through hard work to escape poverty. Critics, however, are quick to point out that it is not the hard work itself that rescues the boy from his fate, but rather some extraordinary act of bravery or honesty, which brings him into contact with a wealthy elder gentleman, who takes the boy in as a ward. The boy might return a large sum of money that was lost or rescue someone from an overturned carriage, bringing the boy–and his plight–to the attention of some wealthy individual. It has been suggested that this reflected Horatio’s own patronizing attitude toward the boys he tried to help and his own probable homosexuality.”
Now WE know em