As I began the story of Ragged Dick, also known as Richard Hunter, I noticed a few technical intrigues. I was able to see that we had an overt narrator, who spoke in the first person when describing several events and our protagonist. There’s a desire of the narrator, whether it’s the actual or implied author, that “young readers will like him” as he does, despite the child’s faults (Alger, 1868, pg. 6). Thus, I wondered if he would become an unreliable narrator, if he would have any sort of bias when describing Dick. This wasn’t specifically addressed, though I did think of it every time the narrator referenced himself and his own thoughts. The concept of narrated monologue seems to be at play as well, as we see, often, a “double-voiced kind of discourse” when the narrator discusses his own thoughts as well as Dick’s (Keen, 2015, pg. 62).
Once I began to pay attention to the narrative, however, I was bothered by how easily Dick was able to move out of his current situation. Mr. Whitney gave Dick new clothes and “a five dollar bill”, in hopes that he would “repay it in the form of aid to some poor boy” (Alger, 1868, pg. 50), and suddenly Dick changes his entire life and does just that. This made me uncomfortable because there are people today who truly believe this is how to help the lower classes, and they call it trickle down economics. I didn’t like how smoothly Dick went from sleeping on the street, to creating a bank account, to renting a room, to getting a tutor, to going to Sunday School, to saving up over one hundred dollars. It just felt very unrealistic. Especially the end, where just for saving some random kid he suddenly has the new job he’d been hoping for and a benefactor. I understand this is a rags to riches stock story, but rags to riches in less than a year? When millions are stuck in the same situation for decades? I started to wonder if this was less a stock story and more capitalist propaganda. Then I read Demythologizing Alger, and my feelings were only strengthened.
Admittedly, I had not heard of Horatio Alger before picking up this novel. I did not carry with me any preconceived notions about the man, like a large portion of America seemed to in the past. Thus, I had no idea that he turned from an “economic mythmaker…into a patriotic defender of the social and political status quo and erstwhile proponent of laissez-faire capitalism” (Scharnhorst, 1980, pg. 192). Ah, and there, I was already seeing a connection to my own thoughts about his work. To hear that so many lauded his work, that he inadvertently created his own masterplot, the “Horatio Alger hero”, again brought up great discomfort for me (1980, pg. 194). It meant my fears were realized, that his ideas about working hard to get ahead did fuel debates about our economy and validated those who felt the same. I understand where it started, the anxieties about the state of the nation during the Great Depression and a need to look for hope in any form (1980, pg. 192). If that hope was a rags to riches narrative, one man’s version in particular, so be it. I also acknowledge Scharnhorst’s point that the whole political ideology stemming from Alger’s work had more to do with “the cultural context in which the books were read and remembered” (1980, pg. 197). But that doesn’t make the story any less powerful and dangerous. If we truly keep things as they are, believe in the Horatio Alger hero, things in our country will never improve.