Childhood & Early Life
Horatio Alger, Jr. was born as the eldest son of Horatio Alger, Sr., a Unitarian minister, and his wife Olive Augusta. He had four siblings, including an invalid sister.
He grew up in poverty as his father could barely makes ends meet. He was a bright and intelligent child though weak in health.
He was a voracious reader and was home schooled during his early years. His father wanted him to continue in his footsteps, and tutored his son in classical studies and made him learn ministering to parishioners.
His father shifted the family to Marlborough in search of better fortunes and had him enrolled in the Gates Academy, a preparatory school. He excelled in his studies and completed his formal schooling by the age of 15.
He entered Harvard University in 1848 where he met distinguished personalities like Asa Gray, James Walker, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and evolved as a writer under their guidance.
He diligently read the works of famous writers of fiction like Sir Walter Scott, Herman Melville and James Cooper, and won many prestigious awards. He graduated in 1852 and was elected to the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa society.
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His professional career as a writer began in 1849 when two of his essays and a poem were published in the Pictorial National Library. He was a Harvard student at that time.
Upon graduation, he continued writing and selling his work, but it was not enough to make a living. Over the next few years he worked as an editor, a teacher, and a headmaster.
He published his first book, ‘Bertha's Christmas Vision: An Autumn Sheaf’ in 1856 and followed it with a long satirical poem, ‘Nothing to Do: A Tilt at our Best Society’ in 1857.
He went to the Harvard Divinity School in 1857 and upon his graduation in 1860 embarked on a long trip to Europe.
He was drafted into the army in 1861 but was soon discarded due to his poor health. Since he could not serve actively in the army, he wrote many war ballads and poems to express his patriotism.
In 1864 he published ‘Frank’s Campaign’, a story about a boy who organizes a junior army during the Civil War. It was well received by the readers. The same year, his novel ‘Marie Bertrand: The Felon’s Daughter’ was serialized in the New York Weekly.
Alger accepted a ministerial position at the First Unitarian Church and Society of Brewster, Massachusetts in December 1864. In addition to his pastoral duties, he organized games for boys, and campaigned against smoking and drinking.
He published another boys’ book ‘Paul Prescott’s Charge’ in 1865 which received positive reviews. He also submitted stories to a boys’ monthly magazine of moral writings, ‘Student and Schoolmate’.
In 1866, there were reports of sexual misconduct and moral depravation about Alger, and two boys testified that he had molested them. He did not deny the charges and left the church.
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He relocated to New York and wrote a poem, ‘Friar Anselmo’, about a cleric who seeks atonement for his sins through good deeds. Alger became involved in the welfare of poor and needy boys and helped to establish boarding homes for them. He found inspiration for his future books from this experience.
His first installment of the series ‘Ragged Dick’ was published in Student and Schoolmate magazine in January 1867 which became a big hit. Inspired, he expanded the series and published it as a novel in 1868. It became a bestseller and he was signed to a contract to write an entire Ragged Dick series of books.
Propelled by this success, he went on to write many more novels within a period of three years, all of them for boys. Some of them include: ‘Fame and Fortune’ (1868), ‘Rough and Ready’ (1869), and ‘Ben, the Luggage Boy’ (1870).
Even though the ‘Ragged Dick’ series was a success, his popularity began to decline in the late 1870s. It was felt that he had lost the magic for writing new, exciting stories, and was churning out poor imitations of his previous works.
He continued writing throughout the 1880s though his books no longer sold well. He started infusing elements of sex and violence in his works, but could never recreate his past success.
Personal Life & Legacy
He never discussed his sexuality openly, but it was often speculated that he was homosexual.
During his later years his popularity declined considerably, and he went to live with his sister in Massachusetts.
He suffered from several ailments including bronchitis and asthma and died in 1899.
The Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans was established in 1947 to honour the author whose tales reverberate with the simple yet powerful message that hard work, honesty and determination can conquer all obstacles.
His works have been published by more than 60 publishers.
The musical ‘Shine!’ (1982) was based on his works, ‘Ragged Dick’ and ‘Silas Snobden’s Office Boy’.
He used a number of pseudonyms like Carl Cantab, Julian Starr, Caroline Preston, Arthur Hamilton, etc.