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Rags to ‘Spectability

Horatio Alger’s book, Ragged Dick, chronicles the rise of a young boy from boot-black to counting room clerk. The book was written during the Gilded Age of American history, a time of rapid industrialization and urbanization that stratified social classes. In class, we discussed the story and whether or not it was applicable today. An expert on Horatio Alger joined us for the discussion. Some in the class, including myself, considered luck a strong factor in Dick’s journey, but the expert¬†argued that Dick’s success came from taking advantage of opportunities as they came to him. It’s one thing to repeatedly cheat rich benefactors, but it’s another to heed their advice to earn your own wealth. A symbol of Dick’s assent in society is his change of clothes; he goes from street rat to young gentleman in true Cinderella fashion. I found this interesting while I was reading the book because such a small thing radically changed the course of his life. Suddenly, adults were more trusting of him, his friends struggled to recognize him, and he carried himself with more pride and self confidence. This is obviously exaggerated since it’s a work of fiction, but it is true that class is often distinguished by clothing. We still judge people based on their outfits and outer appearance.

Horatio Alger infused moral teachings into his writings; to encourage his young readers to follow his teachings, I believe he would exaggerate the ease of following said morals and receiving their accompanying rewards. Though commonly categorized as a classic rags-to-riches story, Ragged Dick is less about achieving immense fame and fortune than it is about working with what you have to raise your standard of living. As the expert said, “it’s not rags to riches, it’s rags to respectability”. With that said, there was a consensus among the class that the story was overly idealistic about social mobility. Transcending socioeconomic boundaries is not easy, even when you take advantage of opportunities given to you. It wasn’t easy for Dick either. He had several patrons guide him and encourage him to improve himself; he dedicated himself to both his studies and his work. But, simply working hard and getting an education isn’t enough to ‘move up in the world’ anymore. Our Kids showed that children with volatile family situations are severely disadvantaged by the lack of strong role models. Pursuing an education often means incurring debt and working hard to pay off said debt leaves little time for studying. The social environment in which¬†Ragged Dick is set offers little insight into today’s, but it sets a standard of what the American Dream is. By having an ideal to compare with, we can better highlight disparities.

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