The Great Horatio Alger Myth

Horatio 1

Strive and succeed. That’s the motto that gets hammered into Americans’ heads from the day they’re born. Work hard and you will be prosperous. It’s a credo that Americans have embraced wholeheartedly; after all, it’s the land of opportunity, right? So what better domain to operate under this simple formula that greater effort equals greater reward.

We have come to call this the Horatio Alger narrative, after the popular author who wrote a series of young adult “rags to riches” novels in which the hero, always a hardworking and honest youth, finally achieves good fortune. These cheesy turn-of-the-century books both embodied and propagated the popularity of the “Protestant work ethic” in the U.S. If you look beneath the surface, however, you see that things aren’t quite so simple.

First of all, if you examine more closely the Alger books themselves, you see that the stories aren’t quite as you might expect from the hype. They do not really involve underprivileged individuals building successful lives on their own efforts. Instead, the young protagonists get a leg up by somehow currying favor with older, already successful role models. This plot device, by the way, was drawn from Alger’s own life. Before he became an author, he was a minister who took an interest in befriending and mentoring youths in his flock. He lost that gig when it was discovered that he had been, um, getting a little too friendly with them.

A closer scrutiny of the narrative, in other words, betrays the truth about a common component of the myth: the persona of rugged independence has been greatly distorted. Independence is certainly an admirable quality, and some people possess it more than others. But the part of the myth that is really mythical is the notion that it’s possible to be a success (particularly in the financial sense, as the word success is almost always intended in America) without the aid of other people.  Even the most independent entrepreneur in the world will not earn a dime without customers or clients to purchase his or her goods or services.

Many Americans, however, have been conditioned to think of prosperity as a pie, and when some people are served a slice, it subtracts from what other people get. Consequently, they look upon programs to assist the needy as a drain upon taxpayers rather than an investment that can benefit everyone. And they try to rationalize this attitude with the talking point that “handouts breed dependency” — unless, of course, they’re talking about “handouts” for the wealthy.

A sad corollary and side effect of the Horatio Alger myth is the attitude that people deserve whatever economic status they find themselves in. Thus the rich deserve to be rich (even the Walton family or the 45th White House Occupant, who’ve never had to work a day in their pampered lives), and the poor deserve to be poor — even homeless, shell-shocked veterans and people who have been plagued with medical bills and other misfortunes.

This has given rise to the myth of the “welfare queen”, the “welfare Cadillac”, and so on. The popular stereotype about recipients of public assistance is that they are lazy minorities who have become dependent on government intervention. In reality, most are white, are employed at least part time, are desperate to get off the dole, and stay on it only a short time. And the amount of your tax money that goes toward such programs is hardly a sliver in comparison to other budgetary allotments, some of which are far less benign and productive.

To observe how the Horatio Alger myth breaks apart when exposed to oxygen, all we need do is consider in a little more detail the life of the one person who is perhaps most often touted as its personification: Abraham Lincoln. We all know that he was born in a log cabin, had an impoverished childhood, was hardworking and dedicated and honest (actually, he wasn’t all that honest, but that’s another story) and eventually not only worked his way up to the world’s most prestigious position, but became what many consider the greatest leader in the nation’s history. All well and good. But there are other details about him that you don’t hear about quite so much.

As a young man, he lost his job and lost a race for the state legislature. The following year, his grocery business failed, incurring debts that took 15 years to repay. A couple of years later, he finally was elected to the legislature, but then he lost two races for Speaker of the House. A few years after that, he managed to get elected to Congress, but was defeated for reelection two years later. Then he lost a race for a land-office seat. He then lost two bids to be elected senator, and one bid to be vice-president.  Finally, at age 51, he ran for president. And won.

Now on the one hand, Lincoln’s trajectory illustrates the importance of tenacity and dedication. So it’s understandable that it would be used to illustrate the axiom “try, try again.” BUT…suppose he had died at the age of 50? Do you think he would be remembered today? There’s not much to indicate he would be, and certainly he would not have been remembered as one of the nation’s greatest statesmen. In fact, his life up to that point was distinguished more by failure than by success.

Lincoln’s biography was boosted tremendously by the fact that, mostly out of sheer chance, his death was delayed by a few years. Yet even before he was catapulted into the history books, he still possessed those skills and traits that made him famous, even though he was then quite unknown. In other words, while hard work and character are admirable and productive, luck is also a big factor. How many other men and women have lived who possessed character comparable to Honest Abe’s and worked as hard as he did, but are now forgotten because they died before their efforts paid off?

None of this is to suggest that the Horatio Alger myth isn’t useful. Perhaps it is even essential. It’s certainly important, at least, to foster the attitude that hard work produces satisfaction and reward (even if the reward isn’t always monetary). It’s important to understand that effort is productive. But it’s also important to understand that there is not a direct, consistent, predictable correlation between the amount of effort and the amount of reward. It’s important to have empathy for those who are struggling, and at least occasionally, offer them a helping hand. The risk of having people become “dependent on a handout” isn’t nearly as real as the risk of having the next Abe Lincoln die unknown.

 

2 comments

  1. “Many Americans, however, have been conditioned to think of prosperity as a pie, and when some people are served a slice, it subtracts from what other people get.”

    Yes! Reminds of a little parable I heard long ago and more recently recalled as an example of Trumpster thinking:

    A farmer plowing his field hit a metallic object buried in the soil. He pulled out a lamp. When he dusted it off, a genie appeared. The genie said, “I’ll grant you one wish. Whatever you ask. But whatever I do for you, I do twice that for your neighbor.”

    The farmer thought for a moment and said, “I want you to put out one of my eyes.”

    Zero sum capitalism. Why can’t we look at things like single payer healthcare/Medicare for all, or free college tuition, as investment capitalism, rather than labeling them socialist? Allocate some funds up front pays dividends in the future — although, perhaps, not to us, personally.

    Good post. Food for thought.

    Thanks!

  2. Hello POP, I have not commented until now due to pressing personal matters. However I am glad to see that the works of Horatio Alger are the topic.

    While a child during the late 50s and the early 60s I noticed that my mother had a collection of Alger’s works which she obviously prized. I have no doubt that if I had kept those copies which already looked old and weathered in 1960 that I would probably own some priceless copies that any collector would pay me for. I remember that my mother was very respectful of the rags to riches myth that Alger’s books popularized, and you are right that all of we Americans have been indoctrinated to believe that with perseverance and motivation, any of us can be abundantly wealthy or perhaps, even President of the US. I noted one portion of your article which especially caught my attention:

    “Many Americans, however, have been conditioned to think of prosperity as a pie, and when some people are served a slice, it subtracts from what other people get. Consequently, they look upon programs to assist the needy as a drain upon taxpayers rather than an investment that can benefit everyone. And they try to rationalize this attitude with the talking point that “handouts breed dependency” — unless, of course, they’re talking about “handouts” for the wealthy.”

    The above is morally pertinent to many upper class people as well as the top 1%–or .1% but I have always doubted the universality of its application and the certainty of its worthwhile ends? Obviously all of us are limited by our circumstances and did not ask to be born in such and such a country, at such and such a time. How for instance are the poor hunted and persecuted people in the Sudan, supposed to “trust in the universe” to bring them their needs (as one popular motivational speaker claims)? Don’t they already exert themselves to the max in order to survive? And does that not leave them with a mere bucket of water after walking 20 miles to the nearest well or spring–while all the while they must hide like hunted animals from the genocidal ambitions of Assholes who don’t give a damn what happens to them?

    Even in this country many responsible people thought they were wisely adding to their retirement funds like pensions, their 401Ks, and investments via the TBTF banks run by (Too Corrupt to Care Thieves) on wall street, who deliberately destroyed the economy in 2008!. You are absolutely right that people like Trump, who are born with a silver spoon in their mouths, have no idea what it truly means to struggle for daily existence–especially those in third world countries earning the equivalent of one or two dollars a day, or those needing assistance before acquiring basic security, like the many in our lower and middle classes in this country must do.

    So perhaps Alger’s characters only disguise the many uncertainties of life (even for those who are currently well off)–as long as they rationalize via employing unethical beliefs about anyone being able to put their shoulders to the wheel, and then lift themselves up by their bootstraps.

    None of us truly knows what their futures will bring–even someone like Trump can experience a sudden heart attack that makes his physical well-being into nothing but an assumed ticket to live in the future.

    What really bothers me is how the supposed (religious right) fail to heed the clear advice of spiritual teachers like Jesus, who advised us not to lay up for ourselves treasures on earth, where moths corrupt, and where thieves break in and steal! Of course it’s not Wrong to need money but many of us need to view our wealth and our needs in perspective, saying, “it’s not money that corrupts, but the love for and worship of money that hurts even the earth shakers and their victims–while not even acknowledging that nuclear War and global warming pose serious threats to anyone’s need for security.

    However, currently some very wealthy people like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and other billionaires, are leading a movement to bequeath large portions of their fortunes to charitable causes–like those dedicated to ending the disease and malnutrition that literally tears the future and the life out of suffering children–children who have no idea why life is so hard, instead of something beautiful that they also deserve to enjoy! Buffet said it best when he recognized the role that luck played in his own wealth, saying that he happened to be born in a time and place that gave him the opportunity to amass a fortune. He also calls on Congress to quit mollycoddling billionaires and instead, make them pay appropriate taxes that they can very well afford to pay!

    Being motivated to secure a future full of security for those of us who can’t afford golden toilets, and who blatantly lie without remorse, while suffering little or no consequences for their lies has got to end!

    As the son of middle class parents and having access a slew of well-grounded relatives around me, I know that despite the sour grapes myth often used to criticize those who expect millionaires and billionaires to pay more taxes, I was never made to seek lucrative personal success–except for the simple benefits of working hard and secure a life that does not depend on possessing physical wealth, but does include the hope of living comfortably even without pursuing extreme wealth. People like my parents cared nothing about needing to be rich, or needing to be privileged–they simply worked hard to own modest homes and provide a chance for their kids to graduate from college–both things that are not doing so well under our current Republican yoke as greedy and power hungry
    people attempt to establish Trump as a king who is (most importantly) capable of signing Republiclican legislation!

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