11 February 2016

The real Horatio Alger


My old friend and occasional running partner James Olcott started a blog about his father Bernard a few months ago. I met Bernard once: he was a prolific inventor and the founder of the first firm in the world to harness the power of emerging computer technology to the payment of the annual fees needed to keep patents alive. He was also, his son now tells us, lots of other things, and the weekly stories make for entertaining reading as well as being highly informative about all sorts of things. James paints a vivid picture of New York in the fifties and sixties, for one thing. It is well worth a read.

The blog is sub-titled "The real Horatio Alger". It may be that American readers understand the reference at first sight. I certainly didn't. Untypically, I didn't immediately search for the information needed to fill the gap in my knowledge. I was probably too busy trying to learn Mashina Vremeni lyrics, or baking flapjacks, or watching episodes of The Meeting Place Cannot be Changed, or reading Galbraith or one of the myriad other ways in which I fill my time in preference to working.

It seems that there should have been no gap in my knowledge to begin with, for I have read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas* - in which HST (no, not High Speed Train) refers to the man several times and ends up by writing that he thinks of himself as a "monster reincarnation of Horatio Alger...a Man on the Move, and just sick enough to be totally confident."

It seems to me that Thompson is confusing the man and the myth, and perhaps that James has done too. Bernard's story is a classic one of (something like) rags to riches - at least, it's about the success of the son of immigrant parents. That is the theme of Horatio Alger's work, for he was a novelist, and quite a prolific one, maybe the inventor (at least in the U.S.) of the "rags to riches" genre, although one might more accurately say "rags to middle-class respectability", which is a different (perhaps better, perhaps worse) matter. Alger himself came from a privileged though not exactly affluent background, went to Harvard (long before Galbraith), and became a Unitarian minister like his father - before being accused of "the crime of...unnatural familiarity with boys", which might deter later writers from claiming too much in the way of similarity with him. Perhaps James should compare his father with Ragged Dick rather than with that character's creator: as for HST, I think anyone with whom he compared himself is in deep, deep trouble anyway.

*No, I haven't seen the film. I haven't been able to enjoy a film made from a book I've read since One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. How I am going to get on with the BBC's new War and Peace, I don't know.


++James said...

Believe me, the reference "Horatio Alger" can be obscure to Americans as well. As for myself, I couldn't keep it straight from the "Alger Hiss" story which was a completely different person and situation.

In any event, you looked up the reference and got the context of "rags to riches." I think my Dad qualifies. Thank you for the mention!

++James said...

I should point out that the reference to Horatio Alger is completely of the "rags to riches" variety and nothing to do with Alger's sexual misconduct (of which I was unaware until I read your post).

As I am the living proof, natch, there is of course plenty of inherent prurient content in The Bernard Olcott Story. Not every post goes into this, if you pardon the pun, but he was divorced 5 times. So lots of skirt chasing. Especially in the 1960s. And at least 5 Houdini escapes!