This article was originally posted in another venue on September 30, 2006.
It looks like the 11th annual Horatio Alger Street Fair in Marlborough, Massachusetts has a bit of a public relations problem on its hands. Horatio Alger Jr. (1832 – 1899) was the bestselling (and prolific) author whose “rags to riches” novels helped popularize the American dream. At the height of his popularity, his sales rivaled those of another, more familiar icon of the American literary field, Mark Twain. However, in the 1980’s, long-buried allegations surfaced concerning Alger’s abrupt departure from a ministry in Cape Cod in 1866 … allegations that Alger had been involved in the “abominable and revolting crime of unnatural familiarity with boys.”
After being recently apprised of this unexpected news from 140 years ago, Marlborough town leaders are considering dropping the name of Horatio Alger from the festival. Next year’s festival may very well have a new name, despite that the fact that, as pointed out by Janet Bruno, chairwoman of the fair committee for Marlborough’s Chamber of Commerce, these allegations were never proven in a court of law.
Maybe I have a different perspective on all of this controversy. To me, there’s a fundamental difference between the message and the messenger. The writer and the body of work created by that writer are two separate entities.
I can remember reading Alger’s books when I was in elementary school. No, I’m not that old! I can assure you that I didn’t read them in their original editions. I had gone through all the usual books that you go through at that age, like the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and Tom Swift (hey, I grew up before Harry Potter was around, OK?). With nothing else of interest, I checked out a few of Alger’s books. And they were pretty decent, albeit very formulistic after you’d read a few of them.
In most of them, a young man heads out to seek his destiny, often going on a long journey. In at least one of the books, the hero traveled to California during a gold rush. Through a combination of luck and pluck, the hero beats the bad guys in the end, achieving fame and fortune in the process. Alger wrote something like 130 of these, of which I read the ten or so that the library stocked.
As I stated before, they’re formulistic. Also, to my adult eye, probably a little stilted and moralistic, too. But place them in their context, and the books were widely read and hugely influential in their day. They may even have had a great deal to do with shaping that concept we generically perceive as “the American Dream.” Not a bad legacy at all.
On the other hand, consider Horatio Alger Jr., the individual. Well, people are flawed, sometimes seriously flawed. Perhaps, in Horatio Alger’s case, even criminally flawed. If the allegations were true, he undoubtedly deserved to be severely punished for his transgressions. And Horatio Alger is by no means the only creative person to ever be reviled for his actions or personal beliefs.
Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883), the German composer best known for “The Ride of the Valkyries,” was widely reviled for his anti-Semitic and political remarks. Within the science fiction field, writer Edmund Cooper (1926 – 1982) was noted for his disparaging and critical attitude toward women.
I’m not condoning the actions or beliefs of any of these people. In fact, reprehensible is the first word that comes to my mind when I think of them as individuals. But I will note that they all have something in common. They’re all dead. They’re all safely beyond any possibility of benefiting materially from their work. And they all left behind a legacy, a body of work that has outlasted them.
I find it ironic and strangely uplifting to think that the legacy of a creative individual can transcend the flaws of the creator. As for Marlborough and its festival, well, they need to decide whether they’re celebrating an individual, Horatio Alger Jr., or a body of work that promotes the American dream as success achieved through hard work, fortitude and resolve (rather than just a spectacular IPO).
Editorial Note: (December 17, 2006) — Marlborough just officially changed the name of the festival to the Heritage Festival. It seems to me that they’ve both gained and lost something. One could say that they’re celebrating their own history now rather than the American Dream. I wonder what happened to “innocent unless proven guilty?”
Editorial Note: (July 1, 2009) — Michael Jackson, the noted pop singer, just died last week. Like Horatio Alger, he’s been subjected to some serious allegations regarding his relationships with children in the past. His legions of fans seem more than willing to put aside the controversy that plagued earlier phases of his life and focus solely on his musical legacy. I think Jackson is another example of what I’m talking about in this article. An artist’s body of work can transcend the flaws of the artist to provide something of lasting merit to the public.