Horatio Alger, and the Metropolitan’s New Festival

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Today is the birthday of that amazing American literary phenomenon Horatio Alger (1832-1899). I find his death date fitting, almost as though he knew he wasn’t meant to exist for even a minute in the 20th century, when his bootstraps philosophy would find itself almost constantly on the defensive.

While, like everyone else, I knew Alger’s name  from history class, I didn’t read any of his novels until the early 1990s – -and found myself transported. This occurred at the time when I was going through my great Capitalist Conversion, becoming a sort of Born Again Libertarian. Alger’s “Pluck and Luck” success stories, in which destitute young urchins go from rags to riches through a combination of hard work, character (good habits, deferred gratification, self denial), and quick wits appealed mightily to where I was at then. Alger seemed to me a sort of an American anti-Dickens, teaching far different lessons about the urban poverty experience than the English writer, “Oliver” as written by Scrooge.

Re-reading him recently, though, I was struck by something I’d missed the first time around, though. How crucial is the “luck” to the “Luck an Pluck”. The upward progress of his young heroes often depend on coincidence and random events…often in the form of loans and job offers from rich benefactors our heroes encounter. Granted, one of the lessons of the books is that the hero has the character and the brains to make something of those opportunities when they come along. But…uh…what if they don’t come along? Just how long are you supposed to hang in there? And what if there are even institutional strikes against you, based on your race, religion, ethnicity, gender? So, it’s a fantasy and a fairy tale, and it should be read that way. It is the American Dream distilled; it needs to be mixed with soda water, and then followed up with a hangover cure.

Now, literarily speaking Alger was no Dickens either (and he wrote scores of these books, which we would nowadays call Young Adult novels), but neither is he a terrible hack. There are some dreadful Victorian writers whom we still commonly read: Bram Stoker and George Du Maurier are two prominent ones among them. Unlike them, Alger writes not only competently, but vividly. Reading him, one gets a clear portrait of 19th century New York to compare with Dickens’ London. This is another reasons I enjoy his books so much.

At any rate, last year I realized a long standing goal of adapting Alger’s Ragged Dick into a stage play. A production was planned for Metropolitan Playhouse’s Alger festival and it was to have starred one of our favorite performers Poor Baby Bree. Then I got a contract to write a book (the forthcoming Chain of Fools ) and I had to drop the project, which saddened me to no end. And my regret is such that I will be doing penance to the Metropolitan for ages to compensate. I heavily plug nearly everything they do anyway (they just may be my favorite theatre company in New York) but I will be especially solicitous on their behalf under the circumstances.

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TO WIT: they are opening a new festival tomorrow night, the Founders’ Festival featuring eight original plays inspired by American’s Founding Fathers and Mothers. It promises to be anything but stodgy — not with the likes of Zero Boy and the New York Neo-Futurists participating! The festival runs through January 27, all the details are at metropolitanplayhouse.org.

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