Rags to Riches: Algerism and the American Opportunity

“[….] We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. […]” – an excerpt from The Declaration of Independence, July 4 1776

Some of you may have asked yourselves, “Why is the domain name to John’s great new blog ‘algeropportunity.wordpress….’ instead of the blog’s name: ‘Your Opinion Matters’?”

Who or what is Alger and why should I care? Well my dear friends, ‘Alger’–more formally Horatio Alger, Jr.—was a prolific 19th-century American author and cartoonist who lived from 1832 to 1899. His adult novels and cartoons progressed late in his life to be focused toward a younger audience—for children.

In 1864, Alger published his first boys’ book Frank Campaign, and in 1865 his second boys’ book Paul Prescott’s Charge. He secured his place in history with his fourth book, Ragged Dick, which was fit to print in 1868 (100 years before the most memorable year of the Civil Rights Movement).

Ragged Dick featured a variety of characters—the valiant youth, the noble mysterious stranger, the snobbish youth, and the evil squire, which Alger weaves together in conflict and mutual camaraderie. The reader joins these characters in the rough streets of New York City in the mid 1800’s.

The story’s protagonist is a young boy struggling to survive in the harsh climate of laissez-faire capitalism that shapes and defines the economic and social realities of mid-19th Century America. (i.e. there was no welfare, or Fannie Mae Home Loans for the Poor, free healthcare, etc.). A young man like Ragged Dick had the opportunity to succeed but was by no means presented with advantages other than those of his own wit.

Horatio Alger, Jr., in Ragged Dick, famously coined the phrase that you may have heard at some point in your travels—even today. It describes the hero’s narrative as the quintessential description of the kind of raw and unabated opportunity found only in America: [Ragged Dick would have to go] “from Rags to Riches, through Luck and Pluck.”

Historians and literary critics have analyzed this famous line to exhaustion. All we need to be concerned with is that Alger succinctly illustrated the primary American ENTITLEMENT in all of its shortcomings and advantages. Success (presuming one wants to aspire to advance from ‘rags’ to ‘riches’) is predicated upon (1) luck and (2) pluck.

Let’s take a look at these ingredients for ‘success’ (as Alger defines it). Luck is an ingredient that many contemporary Americans fail to remember. It is out of one’s control and can come in the form of ‘good luck’ or ‘bad luck’. According to Alger, one’s success is subject, at least in some respect, to chance.

The second ingredient, ‘pluck’, is incredibly important. No, we are not talking about ‘plucking’ a guitar string or ‘plucking’ chicken feathers. Alger is instead referring to constant, repetitive hard work. Yes, that’s right. Let me say it again: the second most important factor in a successful transformation from Rags to Riches is hard work. ….imagine that.

So the American’s pursuit of the American Dream (a house and white picket fence with a golden retriever and a government funded pension—oh wait, scratch that last one) is mostly subject to one’s own hard work and a little bit of good luck.

An American’s successful migration up the socio-economic ladder does not, in any manner, rely on Government intervention. At one point, I seem to recall that someone said: “[….] We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness […]” Oh wait, that was Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. Fiscal conservatives that seem coarse and less inclined to help their fellow American with Government welfare programs regularly point to the key word in this passage meticulously crafted by Jefferson: pursuit. As an American you have the ‘unalienable Right’, or Entitlement, to pursue Happiness “through luck and pluck” according to Alger.

So there you have it. I very much enjoyed reading Ragged Dick when at Lawrenceville, sitting around the Harkness Table (a big dining room table where no student is safe from the Professor unless he/she somehow escapes underneath the table–yes, it’s been done), contemplating what the American Dream really is and to what affect Entitlements that were created by the likes of FDR and Eisenhower and the Civil Rights Movement have transformed the American Psyche in such a way that, unfortunately, some of us Americans feel entitled to receive their ‘fair  share’ of success as allotted by old Uncle Sam.

If this is the case, I only ask that we consciously have the conversation and decide that the transformation of the American Dream is one that we all chose to acknowledge. I would argue, however, that with the unprecedented spending coming out of Washington, that recent welfare programs (from food stamps to Medicaid), while well-intentioned, have unfortunately transformed the American Psyche in a way that consistently confirms to the individual their right to rely on the Federal Government’s power to redistribute wealth.

Americans feel so entitled to these programs nowadays that Politicians, like the ones currently in Congress, are not up to the task of cutting these costly humanitarian programs. I suspect, as I illustrated in my previous article, that these politicians’ appetite for survival cause them to defer their responsibilities (very unceremoniously) this last summer to the ‘super-committee’. Our Representatives elected Representatives (to make up the supercomittee); what a sham.

We can get into this transformation of the American psyche later, but I wanted to explain for (1) my domain name and (2) leave you with one of my favorite Elvis songs: Rags to Riches.

2 responses

  1. An interesting read and the synopsis offered of the works of Horatio Alger Jr is thought provoking, however, when concepts attributed to his writings are applied to current times…or even considered on a historical basis…their application is limited and ultimately inaccurate. Key words chosen for examination were “luck & pluck” with an interpretation of their meaning in a societal sense…but the viewpoint of the post is one from the end of a telescope. Focused on a specific or chosen area…searching for something particular…but lacking the wider, broader viewpoint that the naked eye affords.

    The words and thoughts of Thomas Jefferson are also evoked:
    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…
    Good words no doubt…but you certainly must know them to be false. Even at the time they were written…simple times indeed when compared to the complexities of the world today…they weren’t accurate.

    There was nothing “lucky” or “equal” about being born a person of color in those times and no amount of “pluck” could elevate you…put you on the path toward the “American Dream”. To be a slave didn’t mean you were a slacker…a slob…or someone looking for a handout.

    You were simply an unlucky bastard.

    The deck was dealt against you….as it could be said of women…who’s fate was relegated “always behind” a man or “secondary” to his…as could be said of those NOT born into a family of privilege. Not afforded…blocked in fact…from an education or training which would assist him or her to advance in society….to apply some “pluck” as you use the term to better their lives.

    No….the equality of a society IS NEVER a matter of birth…never.
    The concept of equality has to be imposed…forced upon a society to make it function.

    Fast forward to today or current times……

    Many millions have been educated…many millions are working. They fill the highways twice a day…willing to apply their “pluck”…not because they’re “entitled”. Why? Perhaps because their parents (or grandparents) were able to afford their first home thru a VA Loan…and a family was started…the nucleus of all things. Perhaps their parents (or grandparents) were able to get training and education after WWII thru loan assistance and a supportive job, career or business was begun. Perhaps eh? Divine right has its shortcomings. The #1 advantage this country enjoyed – THE NUMBER ONE – following WWII was a “trained and educated” workforce. This is no longer the case…hence, the global economy. Perhaps…just perhaps…Affirmative Action was created to assist those downtrodden – those CRUSHED by the Upper & Middle Classes from even becoming members of society. You imply it made them “weak” – made them lazy…seeking handouts…NEVER MENTIONING perhaps even considering that they simply wanted the same as you and I. There WILL ALWAYS be an underclass. It exists in EVERY society…but what defines that society – what defines the individuals in that society – isn’t simply it presence…but how its treated. What institutions and programs are created to support it…nurture its development. Perhaps…..just perhaps…Medicare & Medicaid programs were begun for the betterment of society…its people…a means of caring for ourselves – and NOT because they lacked “pluck” or drive.

    And now….perhaps…just perhaps…the OWS and Occupy Movements – the subliminal focus of the entire post although they’re mentioned not once – consist not of slobs, bums, drug addicts and degenerates – but perhaps, just perhaps they’re comprised of MIDDLE CLASS people who’ve been selectively and consistently driven from the system. Made to lower their own expectations of what dreams they can have…what hopes their children can seek to enjoy. There’s a cry from some that to expose and highlight these equities is simply an effort at “class warfare”. That’s just more “looking thru the telescope” mumbo jumbo. I submit, that’s a war which has been ongoing for decades and will serve no good.

    Since words from the past are being considered, I offer the following: “Let them eat cake”

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