Ragged Dick

Ragged Dick August 11, 2023

It seems that several of the billionaires generously bestowing luxury vacations, private jet flights, and $250,000 custom RVs on Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas are connected to a nonprofit called the “Horatio Alger Association.”

Set aside, for the moment, the cartoonish corruption of Justice Thomas and the way he has, for decades, accepted and failed to report millions of dollars worth of “gifts” from billionaires who have business before the court. And let’s just pause to consider the name of that nonprofit.

Horatio Alger was a disgraced former Unitarian minister who became famous as the author of a series of children’s books — books for young boys — in the 1800s.

These were immensely popular, but they were not good books. Alger was a hack who churned out multiple iterations of a single plot featuring an unvarying cast of indistinguishable stock characters. I tried to read one of these — Ragged Dick; or, Street Life in New York with the Bootblacks, his 1868 best-seller. I didn’t get through it. I think Jerry Jenkins is a better writer than Horatio Alger — and I’ve made it pretty clear what I think of Jenkins’ writing.

The Horatio Alger Association takes its name due to the theme of Ragged Dick and all the rest of Alger’s books for boys: Hard work and clean living will lead to riches and success, even for the poorest orphan, and nothing is stopping anyone from the American dream of becoming a billionaire.

That’s the mythic theme the name “Horatio Alger” is intended to invoke, but even Alger himself was unable to make that work in his children’s novels. Hard work and clean living were never enough for the street urchins and matchstick boys in his books. The ones who achieved success only managed to do so because they were assisted by older, wealthy, unmarried men who took those boys off the streets and into their homes.

If you think there might be a creepy subtext to that, you’re wrong. It’s not a subtext at all. Horatio Alger was a pedophile:

Early in 1866, a church committee of men was formed to investigate reports that Alger had sexually molested boys. Church officials reported to the hierarchy in Boston that Alger had been charged with “the abominable and revolting crime of gross familiarity with boys.” Alger denied nothing, admitted he had been imprudent, considered his association with the church dissolved, and left town. Alger sent Unitarian officials in Boston a letter of remorse, and his father assured them his son would never seek another post in the church. The officials were satisfied and decided no further action would be taken.

None of this is to suggest that the Horatio Alger Association is, in any way, endorsing “the abominable and revolting crime of gross familiarity with boys.” The anti-charity charity is mostly just a Red Scare-era Babbitt-ish booster club that hands out awards to widely admired famous people and also to corporate CEOs, thus allowing those CEOs to tell one another that they’re just like Hank Aaron or Buzz Aldrin or Don Shula or, um, Art Linkletter.

So basically it’s a club for rich people in which rich people give one another awards for having gotten rich. That sounds like a mostly harmless circle jerk of flattery, but it’s a key part of the support structure for the self-deception and ingratitude that allows the robber baron class to promote and pursue its political agenda of “We got ours, fuck you.”

Self-deception is never fully possible, because the part of yourself that’s actively doing it can’t help but know that. And if you’re trying to tell yourself that “I did this all by myself through hard work and clean living, without any help from anybody else” some part of you will always know that’s nonsense because, after all, you were there and you know better. So the only way to really pull this off is to collaborate with others in a mutual-deception society. I’ll tell you that you’re an atomistic, Randian, rugged individual who is solely responsible for your good fortune and you, in turn, will tell me the same thing. This will make it easier for both of us to pretend to believe it and thus we’ll be less inhibited about promoting our grasping, selfish agenda that seeks to deny others the assistance that benefited us and to destroy the institutions we couldn’t have done without.

In other words, the name of the “Horatio Alger Association” was chosen because these people are horrible, self-centered, ungrateful, line-cutting, greedy assholes and not because they endorse or approve of pedophilia. The members of the Horatio Alger Association are Billy Zane in Titanic, but they’re not necessarily in favor of grooming orphans and runaways.

Either way, though, it’s deeply weird that this name still has a weird sheen of 1950’s wholesomeness, when every possible meaning of “Horatio Alger” is morally repugnant.

And it’s particularly weird that this remains an uncontroversial name now, while these same folks are funding an astroturf moral panic about “groomers” that’s forcing libraries to rid their shelves of well-written children’s books that kids actually like.

Anyway, having said that, you may now stop setting aside the cartoonish corruption of the shameless Clarence Thomas.



Browse Our Archives