Horatio Alger Shaped America’s Views of Immigration — but in What Way?
Who owns Horatio Alger? As part of an effort to lure the 2012 Hispanic vote, both the Democratic and Republican parties are embracing the tropes associated with the 19th-century American writer, who captivated readers with his rags-to-riches stories. His humble boy characters — with their determination, skill, and Puritan work ethic — provided a vision of this nation as a land of opportunity that’s been eloquently repeated at the podium by first-generation political leaders in both Tampa and Charlotte.
Never mind that Alger wrote of Americans with names like Timothy and Charlie and Mark. There is no hero named Marco (as in Rubio) or Julián (as in Castro) in his work. Even so, his early stories still inform the narrative of upward mobility that many Americans — and many immigrants — believe in.
But Alger had another side, one that is often ignored. As Alger searched for more authenticity, his stories became darker and more disturbing. He began to represent an American underbelly, a forgotten society that was vivid but at times horrifying. The American public chose then, as it sometimes chooses now, to reject those stories; his sales languished as did his reputation.
Alger’s whole career provides a mirror to the differences on immigration between the parties. Honestly, who isn’t for rags-to-riches? But the problem with promoting only the uplifting first part of the Alger opus to talk about immigration is that it does not help us grapple honestly with a complicated, multifaceted issue.