I'm Jon Spira-Savett, rabbi at Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua, New Hampshire. This website and blog is a resource for Jewish learning and Jewish action. It is a way to share my thoughts beyond my classes and weekly Divrei Torah. You'll find blog posts, standing resource pages with links and things to read, and podcasts as well.
What motivates Dick when he faces key decisions? Who are his mentors and role models? What kinds of characters come across as "bad guys" and bad influences? Is America a place that really works the way Alger presents?
We started the course at least once with a look at a classic American myth, the self-made man, typified in the original Horatio Alger stories just after the end of the Civil War. Ragged Dick was originally written for children.
I reread the first and last pages of Ragged Dick today, so others correct me if I'm getting the basics wrong. What struck me as good is the appeal to hard work coupled with an acknowledgement that people who don't "rise" aren't to be looked down on unless they are deliberately, willfully thieving or working to keep others down. Ragged Dick himself does not crave high levels of weatlth except to the extent he might pay it forward.
What's not appealing is the entirely instrumental treatment of friends and mentors, and the people you have the good fortune to meet who help you launch economically. The only virtues are within, not between. There's no adult perspective, only a narrow childish view of "success." I'm struck by the move of Dick from shining others' shoes to the counting-house -- moving up means moving away from direct service.
Putting aside whether Alger originally had narrow goals -- to teach children about hard work -- the myth has of course spread way farther and taken on a life of its own. That's the problem, not really anything in Ragged Dick itself.
So does America work like Horatio Alger described? Even if social mobility were only a matter of will, which it certainly isn't, the picture of flourishing is very constricted. I'll be thinking more though about what a more complete philosophy of hard work would be, as we head ahead and back to Benjamin Franklin very soon (who decidedly wrote for adults).