Monday, January 12, 2015

Book Review: Mark the Match Boy

Book Review: Ragged Dick & Mark the Match Boy
Author: Horatio Alger
Date (for combined edition): 1962, 1979
Publisher: Collier Macmillan
ISBN: none, but click here to see the Amazon page
Length: 382 pages
Quote: “`And you have a large rent too,’ said the gentleman quizzically, with a glance at a large hole in Dick’s coat.”
Richard Hunter, known to his fellow shoeshine boys as Ragged Dick, is a paragon. Homeless at fourteen, his worst vice is “joking” by giving misleading directions to visitors to New York City . (The story was written in 1866, but Alger tells us that it’s to be imagined as having taken place “before the war.”) He is also fond of puns; when a rich man trying to haggle down the price of a shoeshine teases him about the “large rent” in his coat, he continues this joke by imagining a luxurious home on Fifth Avenue —his home “isn’t anywhere else.” Finding him amusing and also honest, the man hires him to work in a store.
Dick can now afford to rent a room and share it with another homeless boy, who went to school for a while before he became an orphan, and pays his share of the rent by “tootering” Dick. His aspiration to education puts Dick on the path to Fame and Fortune (the second volume of his adventures, unfortunately not included in this one-volume set). Dick is not destined to be one of the Alger heroes whose big break comes from sheer luck; his upward mobility depends on steady, diligent work in his job and at school. He will, however, quickly surpass the young snob, Roswell Crawford, who becomes his and later Mark’s enemy. (Though more insecure than evil, Roswell won’t find anyone interested in boosting his self-esteem; he’ll slip downhill and eventually go to jail.) 
Before we meet Mark the Match Boy in what was originally the third volume, we catch up with Dick and find him almost grown up, looking for the long-lost grandson of a rich friend. When we meet ten-year-old Mark, he is an orphan who has just escaped from the care of a mean drunk who beats him if he doesn’t sell enough matches to buy whisky; he’s sleeping on the ferry. On a whim, Dick and a friend tuck a dollar into Mark’s pocket as he sleeps. Mark can now afford a bunk at the Newsboys’ Lodge, where he’s staying when Dick, always loyal to his old friends, meets Mark again and decides to adopt him. Not as tough physically as Dick was, Mark is clearly one of the characters to whom Alger granted unusual good luck; no points for guessing whose grandson he turns out to be.
Because both stories are written as fiction, Dick’s can be classified as realistic or true to life—he achieves modest prosperity through hard work—and Mark’s as fantastic or unlikely—he suddenly discovers himself to be rich through good luck (but he’s in a position to discover this because of his good character). This is a convention; in real life both kinds of stories have happened. Nevertheless, in 1962 the publishers felt it necessary to have this book introduced by one Professor Rychard Fink, who explains how “Wish and faith fed upon themselves in Alger’s novels” and found it necessary to help educated, presumably Marxist-influenced, readers “understand classical laissez-faire individualism” as an “intellectual device that could change the nature of social responsibility” and an intellectual “edifice of gloomy error.” This error was, in Professor Fink’s mind, primarily a belief that “the State is unable to protect the laborer.” Fink has conveniently forgotten that the King, not the State itself, had previously been charged with “protecting the laborer,” that “the laborer” had judged the King’s protection a failure and organized a democratic republic in which the laborer was granted responsibility for “protecting” himself, and that the notion of a nominally democratic State trying to replace the King had only recently been proposed in Europe—by a fellow who seemed, at the time, certainly maladjusted if not quite certifiably insane.
Was it the cheerful clergyman Alger, or the outcast misfit Marx, who spun a fiction in which “wish and faith fed upon themselves” to build “an edifice of gloomy error”? By now history has furnished a short answer. It must, however, be recalled that Alger was not content to write just two stories about Dick’s success and Mark’s luck. There were dozens of these stories. Taken by itself, each one was reasonably likely to have happened. Taken as a mass, they made a heavy load of propaganda suggesting that all penniless orphans always ended up rich, which we know was not the case. Alger didn’t write about how many years Ragged Dick might have spent shining shoes and cracking jokes before anyone decided to offer him a better job, or how many residents of the Newsboys’ Lodge, in real life, would have died from starvation, exposure, and filth before one of them got even that much in the way of a break. In saying that there were stories like Dick’s in the real world Alger was writing the indisputable truth; in suggesting that Dick’s story was what any orphan could reasonably expect, Alger probably was, and his fans certainly were, as self-deluded as those who imagined that a Socialist, Communist, Fascist, or other “statist” story could end happily. Alger certainly intended to put his well-off adult readers on the lookout for opportunities to give a deserving young worker a break, but the cumulative effect of the whole body of his work seemed to suggest a belief that, as Fink charges, even homeless orphans “were independent beings needing no assistance,” since they were destined for great good fortune in any case.
Still, one Alger story will do no harm. Although Alger’s felt need to teach the reader went beyond little moralizing digs about how boys who wasted their money on tobacco wouldn’t rise in the world, like Dick did, because their characters were weaker, on into footnotes explaining that the characters passed a building “Since [the 1850s] destroyed by fire, and rebuilt,” his stories are certainly easy to read, with jokes to encourage the reader along. Ten-to-fourteen-year-old boys can still read these books, although they may be more interesting to adults who’ve heard the phrase “a Horatio Alger story."

Horatio Alger certainly has no use for another dollar, so go ahead and buy it elsewhere if you find a better price. From this site, Ragged Dick and Mark the Match Boy will cost $5, plus $5 for shipping this book and whatever else fits into the same package.