In the second half of the nineteenth century, as today, it was not likely that someone born into abject poverty or homelessness could work himself into middle-class respectability. Even those with a marketable skill, like shoe-shining, would find their meager wages quickly eaten up by the basic costs of survival. Unable to save money, they would be equally unable to acquire the education, wardrobe, or steady place of residence needed to obtain more profitable employment. This creates a problem for any author trying to write a realistic rags-to-riches story that can give their audience hope for the future, without having that story’s hero rely on charity. Yet, this is precisely the sort of story that Alger seeks to tell with Richard “Ragged Dick” Hunter—a young bootblack who has been homeless since he was seven years old. Alger avoids this problem by having Dick, now fourteen, encounter lucky opportunities that give him a leg-up just as he needs it. These opportunities, though, aren’t things that just anyone could stumble into. They are chances that only someone like Dick could take advantage of, owing to his particular work ethic and pluck. In this way, Alger tells his audience that, though it seems impossible on the surface, hard work and initiative are enough to save one from even the most dire of circumstances because fortune will favor those who deserve it.
Dick’s industrious attitude directly leads to positive changes in his fortune. Indeed, he begins his long climb out of poverty when he takes initiative by offering to be Frank’s tour guide around the city. Though Dick is a shoeshine boy, and thinks of this as his legitimate profession, he nevertheless jumps at the opportunity for employment in the completely unrelated industry of tourism. He then performs his work as tour guide with confidence and a great deal of enthusiasm. Because he does his job so well, Frank and Frank’s uncle Mr. Whitney take a liking to him, and, being from a fairly well-off family, they compensate Dick with a new suit and a five -dollar bill. Frank also offers Dick two less tangible but nevertheless invaluable rewards for his service: his friendship and his guidance as a role model. Through his meeting with Frank, Dick learns to save money and care for his appearance, as well as the value of having a place of his own. And, because of the pluck with which he carried himself, Dick has earned a suit that he would never have been able to afford on his own and more money than he would earn in weeks of shoe-shining. Dick uses this windfall to rent a room, and uses his new suit to attract a higher-end clientele, both of which ultimately enable his ascendance into the middle class.
Even Dick’s dedication to running his shoeshine business properly provides him with an unlikely, but invaluable, social and religious education, which also helps to pull him out of his impoverished state. When Dick goes the office of Mr. Greyson’s office to return his change to him, after Greyson had overpaid the bootblack for shining his shoes, the wealthy man is impressed by the boy’s honesty and drive. Wanting to help Dick in return, Greyson suggests that he attend the Sunday School class that Greyson teaches. Here, Dick learns about the bible—for Alger, a necessary element of attaining middle-class respectability. He’s further introduced into middle-class society when Greyson invites him and Fosdick back to Greyson’s home for lunch, and is taught how to interact at dinner parties and other such gatherings by a sensitive and understanding tutor. Greyson, as a very well-off businessman, had his shoes shined often and by any number of boys; however, it was only Dick that received these rewards of Greyson’s benevolence, and only because Dick was so good and honest in running his business.
The greatest obstacle for Dick to overcome in his climb out of poverty is getting out of the shoeshine business, and he’s able to do this through another stroke of good luck available only to him. Shoe-shining was something that only poor children did; however seriously Dick takes it, it was not a respectable occupation. Thus, to truly rise into the middle class, Dick must get a better job—or “situation” as he calls it. Even for an industrious boy like Dick, such situations were very hard to come by. Employers wanted young men to still live at home, which was clearly impossible for Dick, who had been orphaned nearly a decade before, and starting wages at other jobs were lower than what he made as a shoeshine boy.
Dick avoids all of these problems and catapults himself into a very high paying position when he saves Mr. Rockwell’s son from drowning, and Mr. Rockwell sees fit to reward him with a salaried job. Because he was the right person—that is, a person endowed with the energy, grit, and moral compass needed to jump into a dangerous situation with little thought for himself in order to save a small child—in the right place at the right time—that is, where a rich man’s son was drowning—Dick’s initiative, aided by fortune, enabled him to get a job it would have taken him years to get otherwise, if ever.
Fortune Favors the Industrious ThemeTracker
Fortune Favors the Industrious Quotes in Ragged Dick: Or, Street Life in New York with the Boot Blacks
Now, in the boot-blacking business, as well as in higher avocations, the same rule prevails, that energy and industry are rewarded, and indolence suffers. Dick was energetic and on the alert for business, but Johnny was the reverse. The consequence was that Dick earned probably three times as much as the other.
“I’m in luck,” thought our hero complacently. “I guess I’ll go to Barnum’s to-night, and see the bearded lady, the eight-foot giant, the two-foot dwarf, and the other curiosities, too numerous to mention.”
“I’m afraid you haven’t washed your face this morning,” said Mr. Whitney […]
“They didn’t have no wash-bowls at the hotel where I stopped,” said Dick.
“What hotel did you stop at?”
“The Box Hotel.”
“The Box Hotel?”
“Yes, sir, I slept in a box on Spruce Street.”
When Dick was dressed in his new attire, with his face and hands clean, and his hair brushed, it was difficult to imagine that he was the same boy.
Dick succeeded in getting quite a neat-looking cap, which corresponded much better with his appearance than the one he had on. The last, not being considered worth keeping, Dick dropped on the sidewalk, from which, on looking back, he saw it picked up by a brother boot-black who appeared to consider it better than his own.
“Did you ever read the Bible?” asked Frank, who had some idea of the neglected state of Dick’s education.
“No,” said Dick. “I’ve heard it’s a good book, but I never read one. I ain’t much on readin’. It makes my head ache.”
“Some boys is born with a silver spoon in their mouth. Victoria’s boys is born with a gold spoon, set with di’monds; but gold and silver was scarce when I was born, and mine was pewter.”
I ain’t got no mother. She died when I wasn’t but three years old. My father went to sea; but he went off before mother died, and nothin’ was ever heard of him. I expect he got wrecked, or died at sea.
There isn’t but one thing to do. Just give me back that money, and I’ll see that you’re not touched. If you don’t, I’ll give you up to the first p’liceman we meet.
Dick read this letter with much satisfaction. It is always pleasant to be remembered, and Dick had so few friends that it was more to him than to boys who are better provided. Again, he felt a new sense of importance in having a letter addressed to him. It was the first letter he had ever received. If it had been sent to him a year before, he would not have been able to read it. But now, thanks to Fosdick's instructions, he could not only read writing, but he could write a very good hand himself.
I've give up sleepin' in boxes, and old wagons, findin' it didn't agree with my constitution. I've hired a room in Mott Street, and have got a private tooter,
who rooms with me and looks after my studies in the evenin'. Mott Street ain't very fashionable; but my manshun on Fifth Avenoo isn't finished yet, and I'm afraid it won't be till I'm a gray-haired veteran. I've got a hundred dollars towards it, which I've saved from my earnin's. I haven't forgot what you and your uncle said to me, and I'm trying to grow up 'spectable.
“…you were ‘Ragged Dick.’ You must drop that name, and think of yourself now as—”
“Richard Hunter, Esq.” said our hero, smiling.
“A young gentleman on the way to fame and fortune,” added Fosdick.