“You must drop that name, ‘Ragged Dick’, and think of yourself now as—“
“Richard Hunter, Esq.”
“A young gentleman on his way to fame and fortune,” added Fosdick.
These are the closing lines from Ragged Dick, Horatio Alger’s first rags-to-riches story. Its publication in 1867 would be followed by 133 similar books written over a thirty-three year span. The stories were meant to be inspirational and to offer not only hope, but a blueprint for success to thousands of impoverished American and immigrant boys. In that regard they succeeded admirably and ended up stamping self-reliance indelibly on the American psyche.
Alger was an unlikely teller of such tales. New England bred, Harvard educated and well traveled through Europe, he was unprepared for the squalor he found in New York City. He had moved there in 1866 to restart a writing career that, to this point, had lacked both focus and success. Upon arriving, he was immediately drawn to the plight of the over 60,000 orphaned and abandoned children fending for themselves on the city streets. They earned small amounts of money by shining shoes, peddling newspaper or selling notions. At night they slept in boxes or under stairwells or in the street. They were completely on their own. As he interacted with these children, Alger became convinced that there was one key variable that determined if a child would overcome his circumstances or be overwhelmed by them. That variable was character.
Alger believed not only that good character was a prerequisite for success, but that it could be developed in anyone. The first requirement of character is confidence. For Alger, people succeed who believe they can succeed. Neither hard work nor strong moral values can propel someone through adversity who sees themselves as a victim of circumstance. Such people lack the will to succeed because they expect to fail. The second requirement is absolute integrity. In Alger’s world there are no ethical shades of gray. The demand is for scrupulous honesty coupled with a willingness to look out for someone even less fortunate. It means always telling the truth and never collaborating with deceit through silence. Finally, character requires perseverance. You must never give up or run from a challenge. Despite the odds you must press on in pursuit of a good end. And perseverance shouldn’t be grim. Instead, it should be a cheerful and optimistic look to the future—to the certainty of better times.
Alger was sometimes criticized because his characters usually succeed after some lucky break or encounter. In this case, Ragged Dick is finally launched on the path to becoming a gentleman when he dives into the river to save a wealthy man’s child. But Alger’s point was that people of strong character make their own luck. Luck is a matter of being ready when opportunity knocks. People with character have made themselves ready to be lucky.
It’s easy to dismiss Alger’s strive and thrive message as naïve or simplistic. But the belief that character can be developed in anyone and that with character any obstacle can be overcome was powerful tonic for hundreds of thousands of dirt poor kids. It was their success formula and it worked. It can work for us too. —Ebert