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Alger, Horatio, Jr. (1832-1899)  
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A year later, Alger was apparently rejected by his friend, and he wrote a poem from the point of view of a woman who mourns an unrequited love. In the early years of the Civil War, Alger used a similar device to reflect his sadness resulting from the enlistment of a sixteen-year-old friend, Joe Dean, in the Union Army.

These early possible markers of Alger's homosexuality were reinforced in March 1866, when at the age of thirty-four, Alger was involved in a scandal that changed the course of his life.

Having served for almost a year and a half as the minister for the First Unitarian Church of Brewster, Massachusetts, Alger resigned his position after two boys, ages thirteen and fifteen, accused him of molesting them.

The committee charged with investigating Alger concluded that he had practiced "deeds . . . too revolting to relate," and Alger admitted that he had been "imprudent" with the boys. The confrontation left him so embarrassed that he quickly left town, fleeing to his parents' home in South Natick, Massachussetts.

In their final report, the committee concluded that Alger was guilty of "gross immorality and a most heinous crime, a crime of no less magnitude than the abominable and revolting crime of unnatural familiarity with boys."

From our contemporary perspective, it is unclear exactly what transpired between Alger and these two boys, but considering the vehemence of his accusers' parents and his own confession and terrorized flight from Brewster and the ministry, it is likely that Alger acted in some way on his same-sex desires. As a result, he was effectively banned from ever again leading a congregation.

After this incident, Alger retreated from the ministry and turned to writing the juvenile novels for which he is famous. He moved to New York City, where he became active in the Children's Aid Society that Charles Loring Brace sponsored. Committed to the social reform of destitute youth, he opened his home to many young boys and adolescents, using them as models for his fiction. He even took in a few as his official wards, enacting the very role that he portrayed in much of his fiction.

After the initial success of Ragged Dick, which was his only best-selling novel, Alger spent the rest of his life writing less inspired imitations of his early work. Even when he turned to new settings--such as the American West, especially the California or Colorado mining camps--to reinvigorate his basic theme of self-reform and the achievement of middle-class respectability, his novels failed to impress the critics and ultimately proved less than financially successful.

In a way, it is ironic that Alger's name is now synonymous with the myth of exceptional economic prosperity achieved through hard work, for although he was able to make a living through his stories of middle-class restraint, he certainly never lived the life that his name magically conjures.

Alger's mythic stature came in part from a resurgence of his books' popularity in the years after his death up through about 1920, when publishers reprinted them cheaply. Scharnhorst cites a statistic that in 1910 alone, Alger's books sold over a million copies, far more than were sold during his entire life. Appealing to the sentiments of the Progressive era, Alger's novels idealized the morality of the country's fading, pre-industrial past.

Alger contributed to this image, in part, through the careful preservation of his privacy. No word of his pederastic indiscretions in Brewster ever appeared in print during the rest of his life. Not until 1971, when documents that revealed the real reasons for his resignation from the ministry were unearthed, did his interest in adolescent boys come under suspicion.

Despite the incongruity between the myth and the actual life that inspired it, the revelation of Alger's same-sex sexual desires has forever transformed our understanding of his work and role in shaping nineteenth-century American culture.

Geoffrey W. Bateman

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literature >> Overview:  American Literature: Nineteenth Century

Although sometimes coded as romantic friendship, both gay male and lesbian attractions are reflected in nineteenth-century American poetry and fiction, including works by such major figures as Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and Emily Dickinson.

social sciences >> Overview:  Pederasty

Pederasty is the erotic relationship between an adult male and a boy, generally one between the ages of twelve and seventeen, in which the older partner is attracted to the younger one who returns his affection.

literature >> Overview:  Young Adult Literature

Gay and lesbian young adult literature--books targeted at readers aged twelve and up--ranges widely in sensitivity, topic, quality, and political and social insight.


Moon, Michael. "'The Gentle Boy from the Dangerous Classes': Pederasty, Domesticity, and Capitalism in Horatio Alger, Jr." Representations 19 (1987): 88-110.

Scharnhorst, Gary, with Jack Bales. The Lost Life of Horatio Alger, Jr. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.


    Citation Information
    Author: Bateman, Geoffrey W.  
    Entry Title: Alger, Horatio, Jr.  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2006  
    Date Last Updated September 16, 2007  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2006 glbtq, Inc.  


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