In Search of the American Dream Through Horatio Alger's "Ragged Dick"

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Google “the American Dream” and you will be met with links to countless articles offering perspectives on what constitutes success in the United States today. When I ask students in my US History II courses to define the “American dream” the first response is almost always “rags to riches.” As they flesh out the the definition, however, the students include the opportunity to be educated, to own a home, or obtain citizenship. Teaching at a community college since 2007 has afforded me the opportunity to witness many families’ “American dreams” in progress. In the classroom, we use Horatio Alger’s story Ragged Dick as our centerpiece for discussing the concept in the context of (post-Civil War) nineteenth-century American life.

I like the simplicity of the plot of Ragged Dick, in particular the way that the story offers readers a glimpse of urban life and child labor, albeit through fiction aimed at young readers. I’ve been told by students over the years that following the well-intentioned -- and very lucky -- protagonist through his adventures as a New York City bootblack is “fun” compared with the more complex readings assigned by their college professors. I’m ok with this analysis: we cover some really heavy topics in US History II so I’ll take “fun” where I can find it!

We discuss the story during the second week of classes, which forces the students to jump quickly into reading for my course. The story is easily accessible through a free online download, which makes it a great choice for the start of the semester when students may be having challenges figuring out the bookstore or with financial aid. I include a link to Project Gutenberg on our learning management system so that students can get started with the reading without delay.

My class meets twice a week for seventy-five minutes and students need to have the reading completed by our fourth class meeting. When they arrive at class they take a ten-question multiple choice quiz on the plot and then we break into discussion groups of 4-6 students. I lecture for 10-15 minutes to provide students with some historical context about Horatio Alger and remind them what was going on nationally when the book was published in 1868. The first couple chapters in their textbook reading have supplied them with background as well.

The students then brainstorm the following questions (posted on the board) with their groups:

  • Define the “American dream” in 2018
  • Define the “American dream” as portrayed by Alger’s story
  • How has the “dream” changed since Alger’s writing of the book?
  • What does this story teach us about childhood in the mid-late nineteenth century?

I ask the students to first think about what the “American dream” means today because it is often the topic that gets them the most excited during the discussion. I’ve found that the rest of the discussion builds on that energy and enthusiasm. I also provide the students with a recent analysis of current economic conditions in the United States to offer some comparative perspective to what they have been reading in their textbook about the nineteenth century. This semester, for example, I shared the article “Unbalanced: Seven Notes on Our Gilded Age” (Boston College Magazine), which offers a succinct analysis of earnings and wealth that students can skim quickly as part of their group discussion.

After the students have been working with their group members for 10-15 minutes, I add these questions to the list:

  • Who is missing from Alger’s story?
  • How do race and gender impact the formulation of one’s “American dream”?

With these last questions I want the students to focus in on the fact Ragged Dick is a story about white males. I ask them in our discussion to imagine New York City in this era through the eyes of a person of color, an immigrant, or a female of Dick’s age.

We spend the last 10-15 minutes of class time sharing each groups’ answers to the questions. In particular, I want them to draw some larger conclusions about the “American dream” that will set us on a path for discussion of turn-of-the-century topics such as immigration and expansion.

Is there a short story or novel that you are using in a history course that inspires energetic and meaningful class discussion?  Please share!

About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.