The Horatio Alger myth has worked itself deeply into American culture. Even those who have never read one of his stories and many who could not identify him have come to believe that honest, industrious adolescents can easily rise from poverty to respectability. That conviction has reinforced notions of capitalism and the Protestant work ethic. It has also strengthened a sense of naïve optimism that in America things will always get better.
The two stories here, one of which violates convention by featuring a heroine rather than a hero, invite a close examination of how Alger’s fictional protagonists win out. Readers will discover that the often used phrase rags-to-riches does not describe the career of the typical Alger hero, whose progress is rather from adversity to a solid and respectable place in society. A critical introduction examines the ratio of reality to sentimentality in Alger’s work. And since the author intended the stories to be not time-bound but applicable and determinative in all circumstances, the tales invite speculation as to how relevant they are to the changed economic and social circumstances of later times.