Target of the Week: Horatio Alger

Mocking a dead man is the ultimate form of kicking someone while they’re down. Luckily, I don’t have anything resembling a sense of honor. As far as I’m concerned, throwing sand is more integral to fighting than punching. You can train for a lifetime learning to compete, but at some point you have to learn how to win. That’s not the message one finds in an Alger story. In Alger’s world all that success requires is youth, dedication, and a bright-eyed smirk in the face of crushing reality. This idea is a cultural tumor that America’s brain has never recovered from.

American exceptionalism is a unique form of insanity. It’s one thing to say that suffocating class structures are slightly loser here. But to straightforwardly accept that anyone that puts in the time is guaranteed their place in the sun is insane. It is in direct contradiction with reality. America is like any other place. Most people born at the bottom of the food chain will die there, often through no fault of their own. If American exceptionalism is madness, than Horatio Alger was the Joker. He embodied this insanity in a career sprint of novels espousing a single message: America is a special place where special people always make it. The man is the father of the rags-to-riches narrative.

He made a lot of these. If the man can be given one piece of credit as a writer, it’s the sheer volume of work he produced. This may have less to do with his work ethic and more to do with an attachment to formula matched only by the Scooby-Doo writing staff and chemists. Here’s the Alger equation for young adult fiction:

HA = ST = YWMP + BC +AL = BS

Allow me to explain my notation.

ST: Stupid Title. Each “pluck and luck” novel had a title in the vein of Bound to Rise, Strong and Steady, or Kicking Ass and Taking Names: How Johnny Pluck Struck it Rich. If they were written today, there’d be one called Making it Rain

YWMP: The young white male protagonist, destined for greatness (note: Destined For Greatness would make an ideal Alger novel title). Ladyfolk and negroes need not apply for the American Dream.

BC: Big City. Alger’s world had a great glass elevator running from the slums to the top of Trump Tower. Alger’s rags to riches narratives were conscious of urbanization, and usually featured youth working in America’s growing industrial hive. It’s hard to imagine someone becoming Rockefeller II by tipping cows in the middle of nowhere.

AL: Absurd Luck. Alger’s novels, by accident or shame-fueled design, subvert the ass backwards worldview they promote. Fortune drags the stock plot to fruition. It’s not the hero’s cleverness or the rich tapestry of American opportunity. It’s a roll of the dice. The themes fueling Bound to Rise reach a new level of hollowness when said rise was essentially a lottery ticket.

BS: Bull shit. Self-explanatory.

As you can see, my contribution to mathematics is worthy of a Nobel Prize. I expect to be recognized any day now. Until then, let’s apply this research to making a modern Alger novel.

Making it Rain

By Horatio Alger’s Ghost

Johnny Pluck was ready for work. As usual, he was the first to arrive. He was always at least two hours early to the novelty coffee cup factory, an achievement that had earned him employee of the month for the last three years, alongside the occasional beating from his coworkers. Sadly, it had never earned him a promotion.

Johnny Pluck was a boy with a dream. One day he’d walk into the strip club his father could only stare at wistfully from the gutter, and walk up to the most plastic stripper in the room. He’d take out his billfold, and flip bills onto the table until she danced like his lap dispensed penicillin. On that day, his father would watch him from heaven and smile.

 The papers told him the first step was finding a job. But after six years at the factory, it was still his job to test talking mechanical pencils marketed to children. When the button by the eraser was pressed, the pencil would spit out a quote stolen from a sitcom. Some days, he wanted to die.

 “Okay, every day,” he whispered to himself. It was time for a change. Johnny put down the third pencil of his shift, and headed for the boss’ office. As he turned the doorknob, a thought struck him. He was two hours early, the boss’ office should be locked. He found an answer to the mystery quickly.

Johnny’s boss was slumped over his desk, snoring loudly. A trail of white powder whirled around the desk’s wooden surface, ending by the boss’ nose. As Johnny Pluck gasped in shock, the boss snapped awake, sending a bottle of ink and small mountain of white powder tumbling to the floor.

The boss looked around the room in a panic, and then calmed down. The light of recognition reached his eyes. “Oh god, it’s you. I’m guessing you plan to narc on me.”

“Golly gee! It’s going to take a whole lot of scratch to keep this one quiet, Mister Smith!”

“Whatever, you little shit. I’ll give you a plumb desk job if you keep your hole shut.”

Johnny Pluck froze. He was raised on values. Could he throw them away for a paltry cash reward? Wouldn’t that besmirch the principles that brought him this far? Would that make him any better than the coked-up divorcee sitting before him?

Johnny shook his head and returned to reality. He’d just gotten a free ticket to the big time, why on Earth would he throw it away? He took the money, gave his boss a handshake, and made way for the strip club.

“This one’s for you, Dad,” he said, money in hand.

The odd thing is, Alger could write other material. But juvenile novels pimping the American Dream provided an easy dollar. He rode the wave until the Great Depression turned rags-to-riches narratives into even more obvious farces. The public, for a time, realized that there were far more rags going around.

See you next week. The next target is among the living.

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