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Alger, Horatio, Jr. (1832-1899)  
 
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Long associated with the triumphant rags-to-riches story of young men who succeed financially by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, Horatio Alger, Jr. created an enduring American myth. However, his life belied the myth that his writing inspired, and the revelation of his involvement in a scandal has caused his interest in adolescent boys to be viewed with suspicion.

Alger authored more than one hundred juvenile novels, most of which featured adolescent boys, who were also his chief readers in the late nineteenth century. His formulaic plots rarely featured a young man who struck it rich independently. Rather, Alger's fiction presents a world in which destitute street urchins or poor farm boys in rural Eastern towns are befriended by older men who mentor them into middle-class respectability.

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For example, in Ragged Dick, which was first serialized in 1867 in Student and Schoolmate and published as a book in 1868, Alger tells the story of a poor young bootblack, Dick, who through good fortune meets a merchant who encourages him to pursue a more respectable life. Despite Dick's circumstances, his fundamentally good character gives him the drive to educate himself and slowly rise in the social order. Yet in typical Algerian fashion, the kind mentoring of an older man serves an important catalyst for this transformation.

This mentoring appears repeatedly throughout Alger's fiction, serving as a sort of formulaic tic, and arguably represents his own displaced affection for boys that animated his own erotic orientation, if not sexual identity.

Alger was born on January 13, 1832, to Horatio Alger, Sr., and Olive Augusta Alger (née Fenno) in Chelsea, Massachusetts, a coastal village north of Boston. His father was the minister of Chelsea's Unitarian church, and his mother was the daughter of a successful local businessman who owned a substantial amount of farmland in the area.

Ordained in 1829, Alger, Sr. dedicated fifteen years to his parish, but after the birth of Horatio, the oldest of the six Alger children, the family began to struggle financially. After supplementing his income as postmaster, state legislator, farmer, and grammar school teacher, the elder Alger eventually declared bankruptcy and was forced to relocate to Marlborough, Massachusetts, where he served another fourteen years as the regular pastor for the Second Congregation Society.

Despite a sporadic early childhood education and suffering from ill-health, near-sightedness, and asthma, Alger, Jr. proved to be an avid student, especially once the family settled in Marlborough. In 1848, he entered Harvard, where he excelled in his studies and published his first literary works. Upon graduation in 1852, he intended to pursue a literary career.

Unfortunately for Alger, a literary career proved elusive. He did publish a handful of stories and several poems in the years immediately following graduation, but was unable to make a living through his writing. This in part prompted his return to Cambridge to enroll in the Theological School in 1853, although he quickly dropped out of classes to pursue a number of writing and teaching positions, many of which proved less than successful. Even so, Alger was able to publish two books--one a collection of poetry and fiction, the other a satirical poem--and a number of stories and poems in the Boston weeklies.

But after four years of trying to live off of the limited income from his writing and teaching, Alger reconsidered his decision to leave the ministry and re-entered the Cambridge Theological School. In 1860, he graduated from divinity school and subsequently traveled to Europe before returning to the States in 1861, a few months after the outbreak of the Civil War. Rather than enlist in the Union Army, he began preaching and tutoring students privately in Cambridge.

Throughout these years, Alger appears to have manifested little interest in women. Indeed, as his biographer, Gary Scharnhorst, suggests, some of his early writing "reveal the author's ambivalence toward normal adult heterosexuality." Despite a scarcity of surviving personal documents--after his death, Alger's sister followed his wishes and destroyed those in her possession--Scharnhorst has reconstructed key moments from the writer's young adulthood that point to his probable homosexual orientation though it is unlikely that he would seen his same-sex sexual desires as the defining element of his identity.

Poems that Alger wrote in the 1850s testify to the importance that same-sex desire played in his life and make constant reference to an absent companion. Scharnhorst suggests that in 1853, after a year of struggling to become a professional writer after graduating from Harvard, Alger "returned to Cambridge not so much to attend divinity school as to rejoin a friend."

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