Referring to someone as a “Horatio Alger hero” means that person has overcome adversity and achieved success thanks to hard work and perseverance. The term is linked to the fictional stories of real-life, 19th-century author Horatio Alger Jr., who penned tales about street children who managed to better their circumstances through a combination of factors like good moral character, determination and good luck.
Alger’s stories weren’t autobiographical. Born in 1832, he was the son of a Unitarian minister and graduated from Harvard in 1852. Afterward, he found employment as a teacher and writer before attending Harvard Divinity School. Health issues prevented Alger from serving in the Union army during the U.S. Civil War. In 1864, he was hired as a minister at a Unitarian church in Brewster, Massachusetts; however, within two years he left the church following allegations of sexual misconduct and moved to New York City to write full-time. It was there he became acquainted with some of the city’s homeless boys, known then as “street Arabs,” and in 1867 a magazine serialized a story by Alger titled “Ragged Dick; or, Street Life in New York with the Boot Blacks,” about a shoeshine boy. The story’s young hero, Dick, initially is homeless, but by the end his honesty, industriousness and good deeds have helped him land a stable job and give up his shoe shine business. Alger’s tale proved to be a hit and was expanded into a novel the next year. He quickly produced an entire series of Ragged Dick books, which included such titles as “Mark the Match Boy” and “Ben the Luggage Boy.” The prolific author went on to produce a number of other books featuring similar themes and young heroes. He also wrote juvenile nonfiction, novels for adults and poetry, although those works never racked up the same sales figures as his children’s fiction. Alger died in 1899 but his books remained popular until the 1920s.