Ragged Dick by Horatio Alger Jr.
Review by Kevin
Overall rating: 3.85
Ragged Dick is the story of a boy on the streets of New York City who raises his station in life through pluck, thrift, ethical living, and the kindness of wealthy benefactors. By the end of the novel, Dick is no longer quite so ragged. It is a story aimed at teaching children how to succeed. I chose this book because Horatio Alger is often cited as someone who articulated well the American Dream embodied in the rags to riches story. The idea that anyone can rise based on their own merit and hard work is central to our national myth. It is a myth not because there is no truth to it, but because it is a sort of sacred truth. The fact that Americans believe it so strongly goes far toward explaining America. Though there was a fairly heavy message throughout the book, YABC received it very positively overall.
Our group’s criticism probably centered around the fact that the novel was written at a different time for a different audience. Jane noted the absence of the typical story arc we currently expect from novels with build up, climax, and resolution. Ragged Dick felt more like one constantly rising slope as he continued to improve himself. Some of this, no doubt, is caused by the fact that the novel was originally written as a serial. Aly found the book slow reading because of the outdated language. Rebecca also hated Dick’s “dumb luck,” which, I think, captures our exceptions for more complex characters and plots. Interestingly, no one seemed to find the book overly pedantic. I was concerned that some members might find the plot to be secondary to Alger’s lesson at times. Whether this happened or not, no one mentioned it diminishing the story for them.
For the most part, YABC found Dick’s adventures amusing, and the social commentary insightful if sometimes problematic. Many of us found the book quite funny. I liked how Dick kept going on about his shares in the Eerie Canal, and his meetings with important people. Katie liked the part where another kid lied to Dick before he could read by telling him the papers he sold had news about the king of Africa. We also liked the historical setting. Kate thought the fact that individual banks could issue their own notes was interesting, if a bit scary, and Althea was amused at Dick paying a few cents for meals today that would be fairly expensive. David pointed out that the novel clearly attempts to teach children how to live to succeed. Many of us also agreed that this social commentary was the heart of the novel. I am inclined to be rather cynical, but I found much of interest to discuss, and not all of it negative. A lot of Alger’s advice seems solid, like dress for success, work hard, and be honest. Some of us latched onto appearance being a precursor to success as problematic, though. Alphonso, Roxy, and Damaris all admitted to being discriminated against because of their appearance. What if Dick hadn’t been a white male with an honest face? I found it interesting that Dick also required wealthy benefactors for his success. How realistic is it to suggest that every deserving person will be rewarded in some way? On the balance, I think the self-help advice is great if it encourages people to help themselves. On the other hand, I think this book can be very dangerous if it allows those who have to be blinded to the very real barriers that prevent people from rising. Let’s not close orphanages because we think all the worthy orphans have already made their fortunes in the boot black trade.