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Horatio Alger Is a Hoax, But We Can Still Celebrate the American Dream

9 minute read
Sonnenfeld is Lester Crown Professor in the Practice of Leadership at the Yale School of Management as well as founder and president of the Yale Chief Executive Leadership Institute. He helped catalyze the retreat of 1,200 global corporations from Russia and has served as a personal, informal advisor to four U.S. presidents, two Democrats and two Republicans.

The Horatio Alger Myth has resurfaced in headlines this summer in political controversy that shows little insight into the true character behind this myth of American success. Alger was a scandalized failure whose recreated image was later manufactured by publicity seeking publishers in the 1920s several decades after his death. Is that really something partisans of either persuasion should celebrate?

The failed writer Horatio Alger of the 19th century and Justice Clarence Thomas of this century have been associated in headlines this past month because Thomas is part of the Horatio Alger Association, a network of very successful individuals who came from modest backgrounds and help support others on a similar trajectory. But in reality there is little that that Alger and Thomas have in common, other than that they both seemed to have mooched off wealthy benefactors. The link was made due to reporting on largely undeclared gifts funneled to Thomas by members of the Alger Association.

The Horatio Alger Myth is a fiction based on a fraudulent representation of his actual failed accomplishments and published stories of self-improvement, neither his life nor any of his stories were there marketed “rags-to-riches” path so often recycled by uninformed parties who lionized Horatio Alger. America is not a nation of ascriptive roles and preordained career tracks and people can exceed the career attainment of their parents. At the same time, there is no assured success recipe that educational credentials, prominent figures met, and other boxes checked will definitely lead to any special standard of living. Individual initiative and luck are still at play. The American Dream does offer the possibility to break through social class, demographic categories, and humble origins to achieve great affluence, great influence, great professional contributions, and great community impact.

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As a first generation American, the son of a mother who came to this country penniless and later served her community in multiple roles despite quadriplegic paralysis and a small merchant father who worked seven days a week and was a volunteer fireman, I personally do believe the American Dream may be alive and well, but it is time to bury the Alger name—and with it the false myth. The Horatio Alger myth, a formulaic saga that impoverished youths fortuitously assisting prosperous corpulent strangers needing help will be rewarded with a life of prosperity is a fiction. In fact, so is the fantasy of guaranteed perpetual intergenerational upward mobility just by attending school. However, the real American Dream, aspirations of success, regardless of humble origins, through hard work, imagination, ambition, and the enthusiastic support of others, can pay off. That dream survives as a reality with the U.S. a continued global beacon of opportunity.

To step back, that we’re talking about Horatio Alger again is noteworthy when even the traditionally conservative FORBES expresses outrage at the unreported millions of dollars of in-kind gifts from politically conservative wealthy donors such as Harlan Crow, David Sokol, and Paul Singer to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. The itemization according to Pro Publica’s research includes: 38 luxury destination vacations, 26 private jet flights (at, in some cases, $130,000 per trip), VIP sports passes, helicopter flights, a “standing invitation” for a private golf club, hidden tuition for relatives, and real estate deals. The controversy grew in the New York Times, however, when it was surfaced that the links to such benefactors was forged in part through his membership gift to the Horatio Alger Association – an association of successful leaders founded in 1947 paying tribute to the “rags to riches” sagas associated with Alger.

This Pro Publica and New York Times critique of the Horatio Alger Association seemed to push the Wall Street Journal over the edge as it featured this past weekend a full-throated defense of the American Dream by Ira Stoll, entitled “Why the Left Hates Horatio Alger.” Stoll seized on the mythical Alger named “rags-to-riches” success saga with no biographical insight into who Horatio Alger actually was as a person.

I doubt that many today have actually read the collected works of Horatio Alger nor are they likely familiar with his true identity. I have studied both in my training as a management scholar anchored in cultural anthropology and published the true story of Horatio Alger in my 1988 research book The Hero’s Farewell (Oxford University Press). Early biographies of Alger in the 1920s were the product of wholly fictionalized accounts by such literary giants as Malcolm Cowley, Mark van Doren, and Herbert Mayes. Mayes later acknowledged the creation of the Alger hoax believing they could get away with it as true biographical archives seemed largely destroyed. Alger and his family had attempted to destroy most of his records, so these writers attempted to create a myth during the post-World War II years.

In reality, Alger was a former minister from Brewster Massachusetts, who had been a fugitive from several charges of child molestations. In mid-March of 1886, he fled to New York City in disgrace with no career. He struggled for a newspaper writing position but faced a string of failures there as well. His flash of success was his publication of the book Ragged Dick where an impoverished young boy street loiterer helped an obese elderly man to cross the street, triggering a fortuitous chain of events where the boy achieved modest prosperity but not great affluence or influence.

After that high water mark, Alger’s career collapsed again as he tried to recreate that same formulaic plot in short fictional articles for newspapers that failed to gain him readership or stable employment, even hiring a ghost author to rewrite his old stories. To make ends meet, he resorted to serving as the private tutor for the family controlling Lehman Brothers. By the time of his death in 1899, his total accumulated wealth was $950 and a gold watch. Historians Gary Scharnhost and Jack Bales reveal this in their carefully referenced 1983 but conveniently ignored book, The Life of Horatio Alger, “The metamorphosis of his reputation from didactive writer for boys to Progressive moralist, economic myth maker, and finally politically ideologue, seems to be been dictated less by the context of his books than by the context by which the books were read or remembered.” The literary fraudsters were eager to capitalize commercially on this nation’s quest for patriotic symbols of economic success.

The political left and right still fall victim to the deceit of the Alger myth. But even if the Alger story adds up to bumpkus that does not mean that the American Dream is dead. From the earliest days of the American Republic, immigrants have been vital to our national identity. Apple pie, the song “God Bless America,” hot dogs, and hamburgers are products of immigrants, and immigrants played a part in founding iconic American companies, such as Intel, Google, Tesla, and Uber. Furthermore, more than half of startups with revenues of $1 billion or higher have immigrant founders or co-founders, according to a National Foundation for American Policy study. And immigrants or children of immigrants are responsible for founding or co-founding 45% of 2019’s Fortune 500 companies.

Despite opportunistic cynicism across the political spectrum, Brookings Institution research on social mobility has continued to show improvements in educational attainment and quality of life across sequential generations of the same family. Moving beyond immigrant success in recent decades, some studies such as those of Thomas Piketty show Americans have experienced a profound increase in income inequality and a decrease in prior economic mobility. Thomas Piketty also shows that there is historic intergeneration cooling, with some recent studies such as those of Raj Chetty and David Grusky suggest has fallen by more than 40 percent. Nonetheless, Eunji Kim’s research in the American Journal of Political Science shows that public belief in the American Dream is still robust.

If anyone has lost faith in the American Dream, they should talk to CEOs like Farooq Kathwari of Ethan Allan Interiors, Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo, Albert Bourla of Pfizer, or Hamdi Ulakya of Chobani. All of them have better stories than did Alger and they are true.

Kashmiri-born Kathwari fled a land of conflict in his early 20s to study business and got a jobs in finance before rebuilding the troubled iconic U.S. furniture maker transforming into a leading manufacturer and retailer of home furnishings in the U.S, even selling to China while most his major competitors manufacture in China. He chaired Refugees International and the Muslim Jewish Advisory Council and the Advisory Council of the Institute of Peace.

Nooyi immigrated from India with only $450 in cash and one suitcase. She worked nights to pay for her management education in the US and ultimately became CEO of PepsiCo. There she championed its inspiring “Performance with Purpose” mission cutting saturated fats, sugar, sodium in snack food rebalancing it healthy food offerings and delivering the highest shareholder returns in the industry.

Bourla, a Greek immigrant whose family was largely slaughtered in the Holocaust, rose to lead Pfizer as CEO to launch the mRNA vaccine that helped beat back COVID-19.

Ulukaya founded Chobani in 2005. He selected the name Chobani as a variation of the Turkish world “coban” or “shepherd” as a tribute to his nomadic childhood as minority Kurd in Turkey where he raised sheep and goats making cheese with his family. His community had pooled funds to send him to school in the U.S. a decade earlier and he is now a multi-billionaire following his successful reopening of a yogurt factory in upstate New York. Five years before its hugely successful IPO, Chobani gave away ten percent of its ownership to its employees.

It is time to stop lionizing and demonizing fraudulent American myths like that of Horatio Alger and instead celebrate real American business heroes.

Correction: A previous version of this piece referred to the Horatio Alger Society instead of the Horatio Alger Association.

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