From ancient byways to modern highways, glimpses of faith are everywhere...

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Horatio Alger: From rags to wretched

Horatio Alger, Jr. (Harvard, 1852)
The Horatio Alger “rags-to-riches” American myth has certainly been criticized by everyone from Max Sawicky (formerly of the U. S. Treasury Department) to Michael Moore (Academy Award winning filmmaker).  However, “rags to riches” might not be nearly as mythological as Horatio Alger’s own stereotypical persona.

Although it’s (sort of) true that Alger grew up in (relative) poverty, someone who began prep school by 13 and Harvard by 16 couldn’t have had that rough of a childhood.  According to The Literature Network, Alger’s father was a Unitarian minister who supplemented his income “by becoming the first postmaster in town, tending a small farm and occasionally teaching grammar school.”  Alger’s mother was “the daughter of a wealthy merchant,” and Alger’s father’s cousin helped to foot those Harvard bills.

No problem…  Older people helping younger people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps…  Still in line with the best of Alger’s stories.

Unfortunately, that’s where Alger’s reality begins to sharply diverge from his simplistically idealized storylines.  Whereas Alger’s imaginary heroes may have befriended young males for the love of God and country, Alger’s own mentoring history was a lot more tainted.  While later ministering to the First Parish Unitarian Church in Brewster, Massachusetts (having followed – perhaps unwillingly – in  his father’s footsteps), Alger “left for New York City rather suddenly, ostensibly to pursue a career in writing.” reports the following:  Church records uncovered after Alger’s death indicate that he was quietly dismissed for having sexual relations with several teenage boys in his parish Alger Sr. (that is, Reverend Alger, Sr.) once again came to his son’s assistance (?) by helping to hush up the whole sordid affair.

Years later (years during which Alger continued to focus upon mentoring – and even informally adopting - young males), Alger wrote the poem Friar Anselmo.  This poem, which many believe to be autobiographical in essence, begins like this:  Friar Anselmo (God’s grace may he win!)  Committed one sad day a deadly sin…   Amazing grace ends up transforming Friar Anselmo – and hopefully, Alger, too.    


Copyright January 29, 2012 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

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