Everyone knows the Horatio Alger myth, right? If you just work hard enough and are good, honest, and worthy enough, you can be socially mobile. This is the American dream: we have a classless society where everyone has the opportunity to pull her- or himself up by their bootstraps.
Well, in one of my classes, I had to read Alger's Ragged Dick, which, I thought, confirmed my suspicions about the capitalist propaganda that was being employed. After all, Dick, a bootblack in New York City finally made good after he began to stop doing his frivolous things, set up a bank account, saved his money and continued to be exceptionally honest and trustworthy. He embodied Weber's idea of the Protestant work ethic: he worked hard, lived modestly, and saved his money. Several older men tell him that "your station in life is what you make of it," and that they were poor when they were young and worked their way up, etc etc.
I thought, "well, great, that was an interesting and entertaining bit of propaganda that was fed to working class Americans in order to encourage them to be good workers and give them false hope."
Then I read this book chapter by Marcus Klein, who argues that actually Horatio Alger is giving this subversive version of the American dream, critiquing it while apparently endorsing it. Evidence: in all of Alger's books, the main symbol of a character having "made it," becoming respectable, is a new set of clothes and using less slang. Klein argues that in using that trope, Alger is kind of making fun of "respectability," that it's all just playing a part. Good things happen to Alger's heroes by luck. In the end of Ragged Dick, Dick gets a good job because he happens to save the life of a millionaire's son. This is typical for Alger. Fosdick, Dick's friend and roommate, happens to get a recommendation (and thus a job) because of his social networks. Quite by chance.
So, then, is Alger actually writing this subversive tale that says, "this whole middle class thing, yeah, all it is is acting a part. And you can do all this hard work crap, but you're not going to make it to the top without just pure, dumb luck"?
My first thought was, why would anyone want to read that? I figured people would want to read the propaganda because, well, you want to have hope that working hard will lift you up, right? The Alger myth helps sustain that. But, here's the question: if along with the Alger myth comes the idea that if you're poor it's not because of structural issues but because you're a bad person, or you're not working hard enough... why would working class people want to read that?
It's hard to know exactly what readers got out of these books when they were published (nineteenth century). I mean, we can see what readers of, say, Little Women (published around the same time) thought of that book because it was primarily a middle class kind of book. These were people who kept diaries and wrote letters. The working classes, who were much of the Alger and dime novel audience, weren't keeping diaries. So, how did they interpret these books? What did they mean to them? Did they see them as subversive? "See, my failures aren't character flaws, this whole system is screwed up!" Or did they see them as hope? "See, if I work hard like Dick, good things will happen for me, too!"