“Then it's a lie, of course”: Lying, Secrecy, and Deceit within Selected Works of Horatio Alger, Jr.

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Ettehadieh, Brandi Williamson
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Middle Tennessee State University
This dissertation examines scenes of deceit in selected Horatio Alger, Jr. texts and explores parallels to Alger’s complicated biography. For decades, readers and scholars alike believed that Alger’s biography mirrored the lives of his protagonists who exemplified the virtues of honesty and hard work. An initial assessment of Alger’s novels suggests that he regularly repeated the same formulaic rags-to-riches plot; however, a closer look at his stories reveals that his protagonists often benefit from good luck and rely on deception as they play a variety of roles on the path to success and middle class respectability.
Alongside Gary Scharnhorst’s enlightening Alger biography, The Lost Life of Horatio Alger (1985), the major texts examined in this study are Ragged Dick: Or, Street Life in New York with the Boot-blacks (1868), its sequel Fame and Fortune: Or, The Progress of Richard Hunter (1868), Helen Ford (1866), Tattered Tom; Or, The Story of a Street Arab (1871), A Fancy of Hers (1892), and The Disagreeable Woman: A Social Mystery (1895). A close analysis of these novels reveals multiple scenes of deceit—an area often neglected in studies of nineteenth-century American literature that tend to focus on adult con men and women. Also, an analysis of Alger’s little-known novels with female protagonists foregrounds his complicated representation of gender and performance. This project argues that deception plays an integral, often ignored, role in Alger’s formula for success and reveals much about the social context of America during the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Alger, American Dream, Gender, Performance, Ragged Dick, Women