Readers curious about conditions in New York City in 1867 won’t do better for themselves than Ragged Dick; or Street Life in New York with the Bootblacks, Horatio Alger’s enormously popular juvenile novel. The first hundred pages are virtually a guidebook to Manhattan, as Dick, an orphan boy living by his wits, takes Frank, a newcomer from the country, on a tour. You can easily plot their route on a map: the boys, in their early teens, set out from Spruce Street, where Dick lives in a packing crate he jauntily calls the Box Hotel, and stroll past City Hall and Barnum’s Museum; they stop for ice cream at Taylor’s Saloon (365 Broadway) and admire the statue of George Washington in Union Square. At Twenty-ninth Street, they hop on a Third Avenue horse car (fare seven cents) and ride to Central Park, the city’s northern frontier. “The time will undoubtedly come,” Alger predicts, “when the park will be surrounded by elegant residences and compare favorably in this respect with the most attractive parts of any city in the world.”
In the course of the day, the boys are preyed upon by grifters and swindlers, but savvy Dick fends them off. The second part of the novel charts Dick’s inexorable rise to middle-class respectability by dint of thrift and hard work. Ragged Dick enjoyed a sensational commercial success, launching a line of more than a hundred boys’ books about poor, plucky lads who work hard and prosper, usually through the patronage of a kindly older man. Alger, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School who resigned from the Unitarian clergy in disgrace after a sex scandal involving underage boys, was one of the best-selling authors in American history, with estimates ranging as high as 400 million copies of his works published.
What makes the success of Alger’s novels so remarkable is their near-total lack of literary merit. Typically there is only a shadow of a story—boy wants to succeed, after setbacks boy succeeds—and the dialogue is mostly naked exposition, relieved by stale adages and lame music-hall humor. Alger never makes even a tentative feint in the direction of psychology. None is needed: the characters don’t develop, they just get rich.
The Ragged Dick books were the first influential expression in America of the myth of the city, the potent quest narrative established in Europe in medieval times and embraced in the first half of the nineteenth century by the novel, which was still emerging in its modern form. The classic pattern was articulated by Balzac’s Lost Illusions, published in three parts beginning in 1837. The theme is distilled in the title of part two, “A Great Man of the Provinces in Paris” (given that the epithet “great” is heavily ironic). Lucien Chardon is an ambitious young dreamer, a handsome poet stifled in the provinces, who is taken up as a lover and protégé by a married noblewoman, Mme de Bargeton. He follows her to Paris to make his name—literally, as he adopts his mother’s aristocratic patronymic and styles himself Lucien de Rubempré. Mme de Bargeton soon drops him, and Lucien abandons his idealistic pursuit of literature for the specious fame of journalism. Toward the end of the novel, he stands on a bridge ready to end it all, ruined as much in soul as in worldly circumstances.
Lionel Trilling defined the parameters of the city novel in The Liberal Imagination, published in 1950. Trilling traces “a great line of novels which runs through the nineteenth century as, one might say, the very backbone of its fiction.” Amending Balzac’s characterization, he calls the hero of these novels the Young Man from the Provinces. The protagonist’s “provincial birth and rearing suggest the simplicity and the high hopes he begins with—he starts with a great demand upon life and a great wonder about its complexity and promise.” The Young Man, “equipped with poverty, pride, and intelligence,” is propelled on his upward progress by a stroke of luck: Mme de Bargeton’s fancy for Lucien’s verse, Pip’s chance encounter in Great Expectations with the fugitive convict Magwitch in the marsh.