Grit, by Horatio Alger: Ambition and Exploitation

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Grit; Or, the Young Boatman of Pine Point

Horatio Alger

New York: Hurst and Company

grit:   firmness of mind or spirit: unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger

Merriam Webster
Grit, by Horatio Alger

In this book, 'Grit' is the name of the hero, a 15-year-old boy who displays unyielding courage in the face of socioeconomic challenges, a drunken stepfather, and the machinations of some menacing but rather dimwitted criminals. He gets help from a couple of wealthy benefactors, as well. It's a typical Horatio Alger story.

In the early 20th Century, the 'Horatio Alger myth' was considered a foundational part of the 'American dream': the idea that any young man (sorry, girls) could rise from rags to riches through grit, determination, hard work – and getting the favourable attention of well-wishing captains of industry. Captains of industry were presumed to be on the lookout for 'likely young men' to train up in the capitalist ideal. Grit Morris is a typical Horatio Alger hero, physically strong and fearless, polite, quick-thinking, hard-working, thrifty, devoted to his mother, and obviously bound for glory. At the beginning of the tale, Grit's rowing people across the Kennebec River for five cents a ride. By the end, having outwitted some would-be thieves, he's headed for New York City and a twelve-dollar-a-week job on the Stock Exchange. So it goes in an Alger tale.

Horatio Alger stories were bestsellers. They were pretty much all the same: a poor boy does a heroic deed, in this instance rescuing a child from drowning. This impresses the rich businessman – in this case, the child's father. The poor boy faces challenges with stubborn persistence and New England wit. The poor boy triumphs over these adversities and is rewarded with a middle-class future. It's sort of the Young Adult Fiction (male) equivalent of a romance novel. The books, though not particularly well-written, sold like hotcakes. Readers in the Gilded Age and early 20th Century approved: but do we? There are a few things about these stories that make us uneasy. Let's start with Alger himself.

Horatio Alger

'What a good boy he is!' she said to herself. 'He is a boy that any mother might be proud of.'

And so he was. Our young hero was not only a strong, manly boy, but there was something very attractive in his clear eyes and frank smile, browned though his skin was by constant exposure to the sun and wind. He was a general favorite in the town…

Grit, p 15

Horatio Alger, Jr (1832-1899) was the son of a Massachusetts Unitarian minister. When he was 15, Alger wasn't rowing boats for a living: he was attending Harvard. That prestigious institution had a total of 14 faculty members at the time – one of them was poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He must have impressed Alger, who became 'Class Odist', meaning he wrote poems.

After graduation, Alger worked as an editor (he disliked this), wrote, and got a degree from Harvard Divinity School, after which he went on a European tour. When he came home, the US Civil War had broken out. Being exempted from fighting because of physical unfitness, Alger became a Unitarian pastor in Brewster, Massachusetts. And that's where things started to go wrong.

In 1866, the Brewster church formed a committee to investigate disturbing charges against their pastor. These charges, for which explicit church records exist, were very detailed. They involved the sexual abuse of boys at the church. Alger didn't deny the charges. Instead, he resigned, and promised never to work at a church again, a promise he kept. The church committee was satisfied, and didn't press criminal charges.

Alger moved to New York City, became a full-time writer of 'boys' books', and a patron of the Newsboys' Lodging House, a place of refuge for poor teenage boys who sold the huge variety of newspapers that kept the city informed in the days before Twitter. Alger informally adopted several of them, helping them to get educations, and allowing them to live with him. He based several of the heroes in his novels on these boys.

There were never any official complaints in New York, but a 21st-century observer might still be suspicious. In 2006, the Boston suburb of Marlborough renamed its 'Horatio Alger Street Fair' when the Brewster story became public.

The Myth and the Reality

Life was hard in cities like New York in the late 19th Century. Orphaned children in particular faced dire conditions. Many of the orphaned boys eked out a living shining shoes and selling newspapers. The Newsboys' Lodging House at 295 East 8th Street (now a designated landmark) was designed by Calvert Vaux, partner of famous architect Frederick Law Olmstead. It was built in 1886 by the Children's Aid Society to house bootblacks and newsboys. In those days, anything done for the needy was done by charities.

The Newsboys' Lodging House charged five cents a night for a clean bed. For another nickel, the boys could have coffee and bread, and sometimes soup. It wasn't much, but it was better than sleeping in an alley. The Lodging House featured a gym, a few donated books and magazines, and offered safe-deposit boxes for the boys to save their coins in. Alger and other patrons expressed the hope that the Lodging House would encourage these disadvantaged youths to develop good manners and work habits, and become productive members of society. The boys Alger used as models for his characters – kids generally referred to as 'street Arabs' – helped the novelist to become successful, at any rate.

Did books like Grit ever really inspire future captains of industry? Did the newsboys and bootblacks of New York City ever move into the middle class? The answer to both questions is probably: yes, but not as often as one would have liked. One thing is sure: Alger's books are artefacts of their time – and like everything else in history, sometimes tell us more than we're comfortable with about the past.

For Further Reading

If you want to learn more about Horatio Alger's life, try reading The Lost Life of Horatio Alger, Jr by Gary Scharnhorst, Indiana University Press, 1985.

Want to know more about the orphans of New York City? We recommend Jacob Riis's seminal How the Other Half Lives, New York, 1890.

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