Ragged Dick: Or, Street Life in New York with the Boot Blacks


Horatio Alger

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Ragged Dick: Or, Street Life in New York with the Boot Blacks Study Guide

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Brief Biography of Horatio Alger

Alger was born into a strictly religious, Protestant family that struggled with money at times. Nevertheless, he was kept enrolled in grammar and preparatory schools throughout his youth, which enabled him to pass Harvard College’s entrance exams. He graduated from Harvard in 1852, near the top of his class and a member of the elite Phi Beta Kappa honor society. After an early attempt at earning a living through writing, Alger ultimately returned to Harvard’s Divinity School in order to become a preacher, like his father. He served as a pastor for two years before he was ousted for having sexually abused the children in his care—charges that Alger never denied. Fleeing this scandal, he arrived at New York City, where he again attempted to earn a living as a writer. After some initial failures, Alger soon found that his best money was made in writing to boys. He began publishing Ragged Dick in serial in 1867 and expanded it into a full novel the following year. Ragged Dick set the stage for the rest of Alger’s literary career. He enjoyed moderate success during his life, due in large part to the moralistic nature of his works, which taught his young readers the values of hard work, thrift, education, religion, and cleanliness. As times changed, Alger’s audience grew tired of his repetitive, formulaic plots, and his popularity waned. To fix this, he introduced more salacious violence into his novels, but this only made matters worse. By the time of his death, which occurred in relative poverty, Alger had largely abandoned his writing. Alger’s survival into the modern era is due largely in part to a resurgence that his books enjoyed posthumously. During this time, some estimates place his sales at nearly twenty million copies, from the time of his death until the mid-1920s.
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Historical Context of Ragged Dick: Or, Street Life in New York with the Boot Blacks

There were two major events that appear in Ragged Dick. The first is the advent of wood-pulp paper around 1850, and the second is the American Civil War, which began in 1861 and ended in 1865. Prior to the invention of wood-pulp paper, paper was made from linen and cotton rags, which made it expensive to produce and purchase. This meant that books were also expensive, and were often written specifically for people with the means to buy them. However, when wood-pulp paper became a viable printing option, the price of books plummeted. Subsequently, new readerships were discovered and marketed to. Boys especially represented a relatively untapped market for publishers: one which they latched onto quickly. While the Civil War is never explicitly mentioned in Ragged Dick, its impact cannot be overstated. It ended only two years before Ragged Dick was published, Alger avoiding serving in the war only via an exemption for poor health, and the entire nation was still feeling its effects. In literature, the Civil War is generally considered to be the boundary between American Romanticism—such as that represented by Alger’s hero, Melville—and American Realism and Naturalism as exemplified by Mark Twain and Theodore Dreiser. The grim realities of the war, which tore the nation apart, put a tidy end to the romantic privileging of emotions. Instead, post-bellum writers focused on recording the world as it was—down to Alger’s descriptions of the conman riddled dirt and grime of New York—not the world as they hoped or wished it to be. 

Other Books Related to Ragged Dick: Or, Street Life in New York with the Boot Blacks

At Harvard, Alger gravitated towards the works of contemporary or near-contemporary American writers like Walter Scott, Herman Melville, and Henry Longfellow (who was one of his professors). While the regionalism of Melville can in some ways be seen in Ragged Dick, Alger’s formulaic plots and lackluster writing hardly mimic the prose of his early literary ideals. Rather, as a work written rapidly for money and published in serial to a young audience, Ragged Dick is a rare exception. Many books like it were published over the years, but these were often written hastily by anonymous men in offices, rapidly creating a novel out of the rough sketches created for them by groups of women in typing pools. Still, Ragged Dick shares certain facets with some contemporary literature. It shows, for instance, the flip side of the coin to such works as Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations or Bleak House. In those stories, young men are neither industrious nor thrifty, and they pay a hefty price for it. Alger’s dedication to reality—in the way, for instance, that Dick and Frank trace a path through the real New York City, with all of its iconic landmarks—is shared by Theodore Dreiser in his American Tragedy and by Frank Norris in The Pit. These authors, however, would have likely have been amused at the seeming ease through which Alger has Dick ascend into the middle class.
Key Facts about Ragged Dick: Or, Street Life in New York with the Boot Blacks
  • Full Title: Ragged Dick: or, Street Life in New York with the Boot Blacks
  • When Written: 1867
  • Where Written: New York City
  • When Published: 1867
  • Literary Period: American Naturalism
  • Genre: Bildungsroman, serial novel, novel,
  • Setting: New York City
  • Climax: Ragged Dick jumps into the East River to save a drowning boy.
  • Antagonist: Micky Maguire, Jim Travis
  • Point of View: Third-person

Extra Credit for Ragged Dick: Or, Street Life in New York with the Boot Blacks

Fake News. Amazingly, no decent biography of Horatio Alger existed until 1985. Prior to that, all Alger biographies relied heavily on a 1928 edition written by Herbert Mayes—a memoir that Mayes almost entirely made up! 

A Hasty Mistake. Alger is notorious for having written his books so quickly that he often forgot what details he’d already included. This resulted in Alger occasionally contradicting or repeating himself. An example of this occurs in Ragged Dick, when Mr. Whitney is given two entirely different life stories.