Leaving the shop, Dick continues to show Frank the sights, moving up Broadway to Madison Square. Here, he mentions, the hotels cost in excess of a million dollars to build, and a library exists with over fifty-thousand books in it. They also visit a place called the Bible House, where Bibles are printed and bound. Frank asks Dick if he’s ever read the Bible. The boy replies that he hasn’t, though he’s heard it’s good.
Though Dick’s lack of formal education and lack of religious education are two entirely separate things, they are often blended together in the novel. One precedes the other, in the sense that the boy cannot learn from the Bible until he has learned how to read the Bible. The two types of education are meant to go hand-in-hand.
Dick adds that reading makes his head hurt, especially when big words are involved. Frank replies in a compassionate tone that he wishes the two boys lived closer together, as he would be very willing to help Dick learn to read. He adds that he’d love to have Dick over to his house to stay for a while, one day.
Frank’s response touches Dick deeply here. It seems the first time that anyone has really talked to Dick as though he were a human being above all else, and not merely a bootblack or a homeless boy.
Dick is quite surprised by the generosity that Frank is showing to him, despite his lowly status as a shoeshine boy, and he tells Frank this. When Frank replies that Dick is “no worse for being a boot-black,” and could one day be a successful man, Dick reveals that it’s his hope to retire from the business and instead get a respectable office job. Frank then suggests that, with his new clothes, Dick might be able to get such a job now. Dick, however, demurs, saying that the opening salaries for such work were too little to support himself on.
Here, as with his prescriptions against smoking or gambling, Alger assumes a certain attitude from his audience. He firmly expects them to believe that the world of business is what gives respectability to a man. Thus, the only way to be respectable is to be a businessman. The opening salary of an entry-level job becomes a major problem by novel’s end, one only solved through extraordinary circumstances
Looking at a fourteen-foot-high bronze statue of George Washington in Union Park, Dick jokes that Washington has grown since his presidency. Frank notes Dick’s queer sense of humor, to which Dick responds that he was raised queer; while other boys were raised with silver spoons—or, Victorian boys, gold spoons set with diamonds—in their mouths, his own was mere pewter.
Frank tells Dick the story of Dick Whittington, another “Ragged Dick.” Whittington is befriended by a rich merchant who lets him live in his home and help with his business. Impressed by the boy’s enterprising spirit, the merchants tells the boy he can send anything he likes along with the merchant’s next cargo shipment, and they’ll try to sell it for him.
The story of Whittington is not Alger’s own invention but a mythic one attributed to the real Dick Whittington. Its fairytale nature, gently mocked here, reads like something of an admittance by Alger that such rises in fortune are improbable at best.
The boy has only one possession in the world, a kitten, but nevertheless, Frank says, he sends the kitten along on the ship. During the long voyage, the kitten grows to be a strong cat. As luck would have it, the ship one day discovers a hitherto unknown island overcome with mice, and the ship’s captain is able to sell the cat to the island’s king at an incredible price. Whittington, thus enriched, goes on to be a very successful businessman and eventually the Lord Mayor of London.
This story of extreme success in life—even to the upper echelons of political power—is rather different from the comfortable, middle-class security that Dick finds by story’s end. Interestingly, scholars note that readers associated Alger’s stories with the kind of tremendous rise in fortune that Frank relates, even though that isn’t ever what befalls his characters.
Dick replies that it’s a good story, but says he doubts he’d have that sort of luck no matter how many cats he had. Frank admits that this is probably true, but adds that Dick could become successful in other ways. Dick admits the truth of this, saying he could already be much more respectable if he stopped spending his money in such lavish pursuits as going to the theater, eating oyster stew, and gambling.
Note well that what Dick seems to care most about here is his respectability—that is, whether or not other people respect him. For someone with so few comforts in life, it’s surprising that Dick would be so willing to forgo things that give him pleasure in exchange for the respect of strangers.