Monday, May 3, 2010

"What Would Horatio Alger Do?"

I'm taking part in Gallery Cat's "World's Longest Literary Remix Contest." The project is taking "Joe's Luck: Always Wide Awake" by Horatio Alger and "remixing" it into a variety of different literary styles. The rules are simple: 1. Those who signed up (there are about 150 of us) are given a page of the Alger novel. 2. We re-write it in a new style (pulp fiction, soap opera, western, Petrarchan Sonnet, etc.). 3. In the end we will have created a "new" work that has the same plot but presents it in a bizarre and likely hilarious new way. This "Star Wars" remix was the inspiration for this all (the trailer looks amazing).

Participating in this project got me thinking about the myth of the self-made American and what that looks like today.

I've read one Alger book previously (the unfortunately named, but presumably not unfortunately named when it was published in 1886, Ragged Dick, or, Street Life in New York).

Alger played a key role in the creation and popularization of the "American Dream."  He wrote dozens of novels and his works were incredibly popular and were read across the country. Most of his main characters are young boys who, after a series of struggles and run-ins with layabouts and greedy people (often immigrants, naturally), decide to work hard and live healthy lives. And then a rich man sees how wholesome they are and takes them in (in a not-creepy way supposedly) and gives them a chance to attain hard-working, middle-class respectability. Alger's books are basically the opposite of everything that happens to Karl in the novel Amerika by Kafka.

Alger's "rags to riches" tales are deeply ingrained in American culture despite the fact that no one reads them anymore. The myth of the self-made American man (and of course all of Alger's heroes are men), from Gatsby to Vito Corleone, is an important component of how America sees itself. I'm looking forward to a project that updates that vision and by tweaking it allows us to think about everything the book represents, and whether or not a work like Alger's is even still possible.


Alger's books never aimed for subtlety; he knew the legend he wanted to perpetuate and he knew the formula he needed to follow, and all of his books deliver the same satisfying tale.  And despite how stilted and predictable the books look to us 150 years later, there's no denying that the guy was on to something.

People loved reading about characters that found fortune through hard work. But, do we still?

I think the true measure of how successful Alger's fiction has been is the fact that we no longer make up these stories about fictional characters; instead, we make up Alger-ish stories about real people. And we not only believe these stories, but we repeat these stories over and over again even when they're untrue (thanks cracked.com). Celebrities and public figures know that crafting a tale of rising up from the pits of desperation to the greatest of heights is inherently compelling--read the stories in the previous link for just a few examples.

And even if public figures don't craft these narratives on their own, then the media and the rest of us do it for them. One of the best of these myths can be seen in how President Obama's mother has been presented. What most people know about his mother is that she's white, she's from Kansas, she was a young single mother and she died of cancer when the President was very young. What many people don't know is that she also had a PhD in Anthropology, wrote a dissertation that has just been published by Duke University Press and was way ahead of the curve on the whole micro-lending phenomenon that is slowly changing the world. I don't bring this up to slight Ms. Dunham or the President in any way. But there's no denying that the image of the single struggling mother has trumped the image of the scholar who traveled the world and fought for economic equality for women.

Why don't we know this about her? Because it makes the President's story that much more inspiring.


Of course there are still fictional rags-to-riches stories out there, but they often fall along the lines of Slumdog Millionaire, or various winning-the-lotto films, which don't show the characters working for success, but instead lucking into wealth and fortune.


Perhaps the greatest current representation of the Alger narratives can be found in reality television. Many of these shows are contests that draw their emotional weight from the chance to see the contestants "earn" their way to fortune by being the best model, chef, dancer, etc, possible.

My argument is not that America is no longer intereseted in Horatio Alger and the myths that he helped instill into our national and cultural DNA. Instead, I believe we're so interested in Alger and his mythos that we're no longer satisfied with letting fictional creations have all the fun. America thrives on these stories, and it's such serious business that we can't entrust them to people who aren't real.

And maybe this is what happens to myths. Perhaps literature can become so important that it occurs first as fiction, and then as reality.

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