On Horatio Alger

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.

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.

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