What Is A Real Rags To Riches Story?

This Friday is the birthday of the person whose name is so synonymous with rags to riches tales, they actually refer to them as “Horacio Alger stories.”

However, there are many fallacies associated with both the man and the over 100 stories he wrote about boys rising out of poverty. 

  • Generally speaking, the boy never ascends to riches.  It’s a middle class life they aspire and rise to. 
  • It is less about poor boy becomes rich and more about poor boy makes good.  It is not rags to riches but more accurately, “rags to respectability.”
  • While the protagonist does work hard and takes initiative, his rise is typically tied to a big break when someone (typically a wealthy person) notices a good deed he has done and rewards him for it. 

Alger’s own life was full of conflict and contradictions. He was born into a young American aristocratic family but his minister father later faced severe financial troubles that shamed him. He suffered from heath ailments that often isolated him from his peers but later exempted him from serving during the Civil War. During the course of his lifetime, he made over a $100,000 (almost $2,000,000 in todays dollars) but died with almost nothing.  And most significantly while all his own stories featured boys who were rewarded for acts of bravery or courage, he himself was fired from his job as youth pastor for improper conduct and relations with the youth in his charge.

Whenever I hear the term “Horacio Alger tale” ascribed to someone, I wonder if the person using it has ever read a Horacio Alger story or if they know anything of his life.  I suspect not on either count. 

Instead it is ironically the perfect example of how when we oversimplify a person’s life we do disservice to both them and us. 

So next time you hear a person refer to someone else as having lived a “Horacio Alger story” perhaps you can continue to feel a sense of inspiration for their rise.  But I also offer a word of caution. There is always a lot more than meets the eye beneath the surface of any life.

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