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On Horatio Alger

By Thomas V. DiBacco / September 4, 1985



THIS is the time of year I prepare my reading lists for the undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in my business-history classes. As usual, I've made room for their reading of two novels of Horatio Alger (1832-1899), who probably holds the record for the number of ``success'' books (over 100) and readership (some 300 million over the years). Contemporary business students should be acquainted with Alger for other reasons: First, their parents or certainly their grandparents were exposed to Alger in their formative years. Second, Alger's books are getting renewed attention today.

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Most important, Alger's success formula appears to be relevant for every generation of Americans:

Perseverance and honesty: Few analysts would quarrel with these traits. Alger's heroes want to succeed: but only by treading the honest path.

Oversaving and underconsumption: Sociologists have long recognized that numerous Americans throughout history effected upward mobility through this fashion. As Alger writes in one book, ``In more ways than one Dick was beginning to reap the advantage of his self-denial and judicious economy.''

Ability to get along with anyone: Business schools have a tendency to minimize this area, concentrating more on technical subjects. Yet no quality is more important to the aspiring business person. Alger's heroes have a good sense of humor and learn to deal with both pleasant and offensive people -- and in all kinds of situations.

Education: Few of Alger's heroes are formally educated, but they all become educated. They learn through their own initiative, perhaps get a friend to help them, or they take advantage of street education.

Incremental mobility: Contrary to some interpretations, Alger's heroes do not illustrate immediate ``rags to riches.'' Rather, they move just a bit up the success ladder, from newsboy to office clerk, for instance. Of course, they have every intention of continuing the rise but are patient, taking one step at a time.

Trickle-down theory: Alger can be passed along, as illustrated by a letter from a former student, now a small-business man: ``I have you to thank for bringing Mr. Alger to my attention . . . My father could have been a character in one of Alger's stories . . . and he also became a successful self-made businessman . . . Each time I hear a young person say he or she is bored or discouraged, I hand them a copy of `Ragged Dick' and `Mark the Match Boy' (I've purchased several for that purpose).' '

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.