The late Horatio Alger, Jr., an American novelist who specialized in rags to riches stories for and starring young boys, is not much read these days. To the extent he is discussed at all, it's in the context of the Horatio Alger "myth" - the dismissed notion, typically associated with the phrase "pull yourself up by your bootstraps", that any person can rise to any position in society entirely on his own efforts, if only he applies enough will and energy.

That's a damn shame and mostly reflects the fact that no one actually reads his books anymore, because Alger's actual philosophy - with its actual catchphrase, "Luck and Pluck" - explicitly foregrounds the influence of random chance and the importance of acquiring a patron. That philosophy can be summed up as follows:

Power and opportunity are disproportionately held by a limited club of the well-off. However, in life every person, of circumstances however mean, will by fate come across a handful of chances to prove themselves worthy of admission to the club. That is, Luck.

While this luck can't be summoned into existence by will, the more you dedicate yourself to self-improvement and preparation - Pluck - the more likely it is you'll be able to make good on luck when it strikes.

The typical Alger protagonist is a homeless urban boy. As the book opens, he has few resources and no immediate prospects, but nonetheless endeavors towards self-improvement by any available means. He might strengthen himself by swimming daily in the river, say, or teach himself to read in the public library.

Then, he finds himself in a position to use the skills, courage, etc. so developed in a way that impresses some prominent patron. At a public park, a magnate's daughter capsizes her rowboat and our protagonist saves her from drowning. Or at a shoe-shine station, he cleverly connects some overheard conversations with a story from the newspaper he reads every day to offer his customer a useful investment tip.

The patron, now in the boy's debt and recognizing his inherent worthiness, then offers the boy a job as a low-ranking clerk. The boy jumps at the opportunity, works long hours and applies himself, and eventually rises to the level of vice president, becoming a man along the way. As the book ends, he either marries his patron's daughter and inherits the business, or is aided to strike out and found his own.

Now there's still a lot of grounds to question the usefulness of these stories as a practical guide. The fortuitous meetings between urchin and owner on which the plots turn were a lot more believable in the dense, lightly governed, pre-automobile cities of Alger's time, in which the very poor and the very rich rubbed up against each other with some regularity.

And if the boys aren't entirely self-made, it's not clear the same can be said of their patrons. These figures tend to be owner-operators of either resource extraction or trading firms, presumably built during the westward expansion of America and its railroads into virgin lands; or of manufacturing firms arising from the then-recent Industrial Revolution and the shift from artisan to factory production. At the same time, these figures exist before industrial consolidation and the building of a national market - a typical position for the patron to hold, and the protagonist to aspire to, might be "owner of the second largest match factory in the city".

This figure - holding management and ownership in the same single person and thus able to hire off the street and pass down a hereditary position; possibly from a poor background or at least not from a rich one, with sympathies attendant; little or no formal education and no particular respect for formal education, especially as weighed against character and autodidactism - was well represented among period robber barons, less so among the contemporary rich.

And finally, the trope of the protagonist as homeless orphan really highlights the extent to which the stories depend on the boys having no prior identity - no family or home to be bound to, or to feel conflicted about abandoning for office-bound gentility, and certainly no racial, religious, or other allegiances that affect his social standing. The only identity he has is class, and class, the stories exist to declare, can be transcended at will.

Now, all those factors don't so much negate as limit Alger's philosophy - they might not be "magnates", but the small businessowner and the associated mentality still exist, even (especially) in minority communities. But that's the legitimate best knock against Alger, that the potential of this approach is limited, that even if we deflate the bootstrapping "you can rise from nothing to dominance through will alone" to the more accurate "you can attain a comfortable life by hard work and impressing a patron", even in Alger's own time, the can there goes a bit too far. Even if they go all in on the program, some, maybe most people just won't have the luck come together right, won't have the luck and the pluck line up right - they teach themselves to read and then get tossed a drowning girl - and you'll end up with a whole mass of people who had the experience of doing everything right and then having nothing to show for it.

Which -- yeah, that's a bitch. That's a bitch. But even if you build in that caveat, at worst the Luck and Pluck philosophy reduces to

"If you study, try hard, pick up bourgeois habits, network, find mentors, and then spend decades putting in long hours at a small business, you're more likely to obtain a degree of respectable comfort."
And that's not remotely sexy, but it's not exactly wrong.

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