chapter  2
32 Pages

The Nature Theater of Americana: Horatio Alger’s Earnest Commodities

MORE SO THAN WASHINGTON OR EVEN HIS PATRON CARNEGIE, THE most heartfelt exponent of the importance of the patronage relationship to the process of selfmaking in the second half of the nineteenth century was Horatio Alger, Jr., in his series of juvenile uplift stories. Alger’s is certainly the name most associated with the “self-made man” story in our time. We may not have read his books, but there is a direct linkage in our collective memory between his name and the idea of up-by-your-bootstraps selfmaking success stories. When I describe the sort of books I am studying, for instance, I often say, “Self-made man stories, you know, Horatio Alger…” and then trail off, knowing, or assuming, that I will be met by a string of knowing nods. Alger’s name, emptied of any experience of reading his books, is left to carry a purely referential power that leads directly in the thesauri of our minds to the more densely referential and experiential ideas of American “self-making” and “success” stories. On actually reading the Alger whom we know so well, or rather who is so well known, one of the most striking elements of his stories is the dependence of his narratives and his heroes’ successes on the help of patrons and on the sort of intimate economies of gratitude and good will that would seem to be the direct antithesis of the alienated contract economy of free labor, but, as I have argued about Douglass and Washington, are in fact difficult to separate from that economy. The central dramatic engine of the Alger narrative formula is the intervention of a kind, wealthy patron in the career of a poor but worthy boy. And more so even than Washington, for whom such patronage relationships are a means of acquiring the independence of capital, it is the relationships themselves, rather than the financial rewards that accompany them, that are for Alger’s heroes the true aim of their narrative path. The reward held out to the Alger aspirant may be denominated in dollars, but what it really meas ures is his acceptance into a community of trust and good will. For Alger, money does not represent the arms length mediation of contract law, but rather the intimate embrace of sincerity and personal understanding. The Alger hero’s most notable, and noticeable, feature is his visible earnestness, his “frank and open countenance.” His face, rather than presenting the sort of mask of mediation that Douglass offers through his wages to his master and that Brown offers his readers, invites personal inspection and promises access to his authentic, inner self. In Alger’s economy, money is the reward for this sincere and intimate access, and, as I will argue below, it is even a means by which that access into inner character is secured.