Horatio Alger and the Self-Made Man

The ideology of success--the notion that anyone could make it with enough hard work--was widely promoted in America through the turn of the century. One of its most famous proponents was Horatio Alger, whose novels showed how poor boys could move from "rags to respectability" through "pluck and luck." Between the late 1860s and his death in 1899, Alger published more than 100 of these formulaic stories about poor boys who make good more often because of fortunate accidents than because of hard work and self denial. Ragged Dick is typical of these stories. A chance encounter on the street leads to an unlikely chain of circumstances which take the Dick Hunter from "rags" to "respectability." Young Dick takes his readers on a tour of the city. They spot con men, figure out the best places to spend their meager earnings, and eventually begin transforming themselves into respectable citizens. Ragged Dick become "Richard Hunter, esq." when he discards his ragged clothes for a new suit. Alger could never decide if clothes made the man, or manners, or if "Ragged Dick" was simply born honest, hard working, and reliable. In other words, did he "make himself," or did he only become what he already was, beneath the rags?

"Self Making," our right to be whatever we want to be or can be, seems central to what most people call the "American Dream." Historically, American culture has shown a deep uneasiness about just how far "self making" can go. A good example appears in these readings on the history of the Irish in America. You can also read a 1902 essay on the self made man by ex-president Grover Cleveland, and other excerpts from Success magazine

An even more aggressive proponent of the success ideology was Russell Conwell, a former minister who helped found Temple University. His lecture "Acres of Diamonds," parts of which are excerpted here in both text and sound, was his own route to riches. He delivered this tribute to the possibility of instant riches on the national lecture circuit more than 6,000 times, particularly during the 1890s. By the time of his death in 1925, this speech had reportedly earned him $8 million. The recorded section of the speech comes from a 1916 record. To modern listeners, Conwell's monotone seems considerably less compelling than it apparently was to his own contemporaries. Still, his message that it is easy to get rich quick remains a familiar one.

Not all Americans, however, bought into this ideology of success. In the brief story, "Poor Little Stephen Girard" (1879), Mark Twain satirizes the sort of lucky, benevolent coincidence that was so common in Alger's novels.

And an 1884 editorial in the Firemen's Magazine, the journal of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, raises broader questions about the meaning of success.

For more reading on Horatio Alger, see Edwin P. Hoyt, Horatio's Boys: The Life and Work of Horatio Alger, Jr. (1974).