Until the rise of Bernie Sanders on the national political scene, the received wisdom was that anyone who identified as a socialist—or democratic socialist, or social democrat—would never make it in a country whose people identified not with paupers but plutocrats. John Steinbeck got to that point when he once remarked of a failed labor strike, “I guess the trouble was that we didn’t have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist.” Misquoted, that yields a popular meme: “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires."
If we see ourselves as millionaires who’ve accidentally left our wallets in our other suits, it’s largely because of another writer. In 1866, 150 years ago, Horatio Alger, who had written and published a couple of novels without much success, concocted a different, winning kind of story. Though a failed clergyman, he harbored the certain belief that with positive thinking and religious faith, he could overcome whatever hardships life threw at him. His book, Ragged Dick; or, Street Life in New York, likewise posited that a young man with ambition, no matter how poor and disadvantaged, could similarly will away penury by working hard and without complaint. It helps if an older, kind fellow happens upon the scene of such cheerful slogging and offers a helping hand—just as Alger himself did in real life, causing no end of local scandal.
Alger stopped writing 30 years later, perhaps tired of the poor-boy–makes-good formula, which had served him well over the course of 100 books. New York, gritty and full of crime and hardship, was the usual setting, and though Alger was no socialist, he was no admirer of the Gilded Age well-to-do: “I don’t see why rich folks should be so hard upon a poor boy that wants to make a livin’,” complains Dick, the poor bootblack, clawing his way into the middle class.
Mark Twain may have lampooned Alger vigorously, and in truth Alger yielded a clunky pen, but Alger pressed on. His books sold phenomenally well in his time and into the early 1900s, but then they were slowly forgotten. Alger’s insistence that work was all it took to become rich, though, became enshrined in American belief.
Historians call it “the Alger myth,” but there appears to be some substance to it. Steinbeck notwithstanding, after all, the Canadian financial writer and government minister Chrystia Freeland points out in her 2012 book, Plutocrats, that of the 10 wealthiest Americans in 2010, only four inherited their fortunes—all of them children of Sam Walton, of Wal-Mart renown. Of the others, she writes, “few of today’s plutocrats were born into the sort of abject poverty that can close off opportunity altogether—a strong early education is pretty much a precondition—but the bulk of their wealth is generally the fruit of hustle, intelligence, and a lot of luck.”
So Horatio Alger may have been on to something after all. We temporarily embarrassed capitalists might do worse than to look back at his books, buck up, and knuckle under. That, or change our voting habits. Onward and upward!Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.