Sunday, July 3, 2011

Reading Horatio Alger

I teach a senior seminar at Brooklyn College. The seminar's topic is success.  There are two views of success in American culture: the Jeffersonian, advocated by Thoreau, and the Hamiltonian, which has become the dominant vision of success. Progressivism and the Hamiltonian view of success, including consumerism, are intertwined.  America has made an error in overemphasizing the Hamiltonian view at the expense of the Jeffersonian view. Left wing politics is intimately linked to the Hamiltonian view: both depend on large scale, centralization, central bank control of the economy, large hierarchical structures to which pigeon-holed junior executives are expected to conform and to climb in order to achieve success.  The socialistic vision of a conformist, suppressive society where all are forced to work for the state and initiative is not only suppressed as currently but illegalized is an extreme application of the Hamiltonian/Whig model, one to which our president appears to be committed.

Louis Hartz (in The Liberal Tradition in America), like many, many writers, refers to the Horatio Alger model of success. When I read one of Alger's novels, Do and Dare: a Brave Boy's Fight for Fortune I was expecting to see a paradigm of the Hamiltonian model of success.  Alger died in 1899 in his late sixties, and he would have been one of the first Whigs (I am not certain that he was brought up as a Whig, but I imagine so because he came from Massachusetts from a Puritan background) to explicate the modern view of success as conformity to big business. 

But alas, Alger was a Jeffersonian, at least as he describes success in Do and Dare.  Elements of Alger's formulaic story line are, according to Wikipedia, a beneficent stranger, an antagonistic peer and a young man who suffers adversity and then succeeds.  These elements are present in Do and Dare.  The hero's mother is forced from her business by a selfish but honest businessman, whose son wrongly accuses the hero of having stolen merchandise. The beneficent stranger not only defends the hero, but then hires him to be his personal assistant. They travel to the wild west, where, after killing a couple of outlaws,  they meet a magazine writer who is decidedly Jeffersonian and also a success.   The beneficent stranger has inherited wealth but has no interest in business; he does, however, provide financing for the hero to invest in a mine.  The mine is successful, and with little care for its operations, the hero gains a windfall, pays back his beneficent supporter and employer, and then returns home to help his mother financially.

The book emphasizes two factors in success: (1) character and (2) luck. Alger pooh poohs lotteries, and emphasizes the importance of hard work, honesty, sobriety, and good interpersonal skills. In this he is in the Puritan tradition of Benjamin Franklin.  But success for Alger does not reflect power, rising in a hierarchy or manipulative business dealings, all of which are part of the Hamiltonian model.  Rather, he views money as a means to independence and business as a necessity that, he emphasizes, ought to minimized in importance, not maximized.

The Hamiltonian vision sees business as an end to itself. This is fundamentally anti-Aristotelian. Aristotle did not like business because he did not belive that there is a mean with respect to profit taking. The problem business faces is how to balance the quest for gain with objectives such as learning, personal development, raising a family and other contributions to society. 

One of the great strengths of Do and Dare is Alger's emphasis on character, an emphasis lacking in today's movies and books.  However, his whimsical depiction of a beneficent stranger who helps a poor rural 16-year old hero out of his financial problems is an unrealistic fantasy.  In using the phrase "Horatio Alger hero" we tend to refer to an economic dream or fantasy, but its application in today's world is very different from the more fluid world in which Alger lived.

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