I’ve elected to read Horatio Alger Jr on the grounds of his enormous popularity at the turn of the nineteenth century. Some very clever and diligent researchers have taken the circulation records (1891-1902, with a gap 1892-4) from the Muncie Indiana Public Library and cross referenced them to the census. They can actually analyse who was borrowing what!
It turns out that a lot of people were reading Alger. He was the single most circulated author - Horatio Alger, Jr. (9,230), Harry Castlemon (7,339), Oliver Optic (5,208), Martha Finley (4,609), Edward S. Ellis (3,004), Edward R. Roe (2,991), Louisa May Alcott (2,976), F. Marion Crawford (2,120), Rosa N. Carey (1,992), and Eugenie John (1,823). The list is dominated by juvenile fiction writers I have never read.
By way of contrast, Mark Twain barely registered with 877 circulations, including Adventures of Huckleberry Finn which was borrowed 149 times. The three most often borrowed Alger books eclipsed Twain’s total circulation – The Young Adventurer (422), The Telegraph Boy (364), The Young Circus Rider(359).
I read Ragged Dick (circulated 308 times). This was Alger’s big break, first serialised in a newspaper in 1867 and then, due to its success, printed in 1868. While the story would be described as ‘rags to riches’, it is really more rags to middle-class security. The protagonist, Ragged Dick, uses his quick wits to move from boot black to clerk, gaining an education through night school, Sunday school and perseverance.
As to the literary merits of the book, I will defer to Carl B. Roden, assistant librarian to Chicago Public Library in 1880, who described them in as fast food:
That is the substance of the indictment which librarians bring against the widely known and ravenously devoured writings of the redoubtable Oliver Optic, of Horatio Alger, of the Elsie [Dinsmore] books [written by Martha Finley] and all of that ilk; their transparent tawdriness and falsity of plot; their cheap and paltry “written down” style; their general tone and aspect of insubstantiality; like a stick of chewing gum, tickling the palate for the moment with their fleeting flavor, only to turn into a nubbin of sticky nothingness in the end, to be cast out and forgotten.
I think this is a fair call. No one would read Alger for his style. But clearly there is a satisfaction to reading his plots, essentially the same one written again and again, of upward mobility.
* In case you want to know more about who was reading Alger in turn of the century heartland America, there were 1,361 patrons. 45% were blue collar and 55% white collar readers. 27% were female, which would tie into other evidence of his popularity with girls such as a 1899 survey of Californian students. The 665 girls who responded listed Louisa May Alcott as their most often read author, followed by Sophie May, Martha Finley, and Horatio Alger.